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Out of Frame: 'Le Concert'

A few months ago, I noted the popularity of a recent film, Le Concert, in France, which seemed to a journalist like a counter-proof to all the concern (especially prominent in the United States) that classical music may not make it until morning. According to this theory, the fact that the end of the film is an extended, although ultimately abridged, performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto can be taken as heartening evidence that classical music could indeed be popular, based on how well the film has sold tickets and DVDs in France. Having now seen the movie in question, by Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu, it seems more likely to me that the film is a symptom of classical music's decline rather than an antidote to it.

The screenplay, by Mihaileanu in collaboration with Matthew Robbins and Alain-Michel Blanc (based on an original story by Héctor Cabello Reyes and Thierry Degrandi, idolizes classical music as something mysterious, ineffable, life-changing -- in fact, as far removed from real life as the inscrutable rites of some ancient Persian sect. After Soviet officials interrupted a concert in Moscow in the distant past (the 1980s!), it takes music's special initiate, the high priest of this odd form of Brahmanism, conductor Andrei Filipov (a mild-mannered, mildly charming Aleksei Guskov), thirty years to appease the gods and recover his former office. When the long-deferred concert finally happens, it is presented in a way that robs the scene of most of the interest of an actual concert, beginning with the unconvincing miming of actors, pretending to conduct and play the violin solo.

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The conductor, having become an alcoholic ruin of his former self, now works as a janitor at the Bolshoi Theater, which is as close as he is likely to get to a symphony orchestra. He fell into disgrace for his opposition to Leonid Brezhnev's (supposed) removal of Jews from state-supported ensembles in 1980 and, worse, utterly forgotten in the new Russia of corrupt oligarchs. By chance he intercepts a fax from the Théâtre du Châtelet, asking if the Bolshoi orchestra could fill in for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which had to cancel its upcoming performance in Paris. Enlisting the help of a former grandee of the Communist Party -- now reduced to paying for extras to populate his political demonstrations -- Filipov gets his old orchestra together, a ragtag band of misfits who somehow make it to Paris. In spite of spending all their time getting drunk and trying to make some extra cash on various schemes, and even though they do not even manage to rehearse a single bar of music, the orchestra gives an unforgettable performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto (actual performance by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra). Although there is some audible rustiness and the trumpet section arrives on the stage five minutes late, the performance saves lives, resurrects careers, and restores families all at once. Yes, because performing classical music has nothing to do with hard work or dedication -- it's all about the heart.

Before this fluffy soufflé is completely spoiled by the addition of several gallons of high-fructose corn syrup in the final forty minutes, there are some moderately charming moments. Dmitri Nazarov gives the best performance among the orchestral musicians, as the big bear of a principal cellist, Sacha Grossman, and French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) is captivating as Anne-Marie Jacquet, the solo violinist Filipov recruits for the Tchaikovsky concerto. François Berléand (Les choristes) has a hilarious turn as the high-strung manager of the Châtelet, but by and large the movie has all of the plausibility of something like Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, with only a fraction of its charm.

In the Washington area, The Concert is screening exclusively at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.


Andy Rogers said...

This is a great movie. It tells us the story, the drama behind the success of every concert. Thanks for sharing.

Roger W. said...

Every concert, just like that!