This is a brilliant film that uses Beethoven’s Op. 131 string quartet as a metaphor. The metaphor also guides the narrative. The melancholy opening fugue establishes the long unaltered relationship amongst the four proponents. And when alteration intrudes, as change must, the introduction of a dance announces at first a number of no longer muted desires, whose development is presented as variations upon a theme. Like Beethoven’s variations movement, the last variation does not complete, but is interrupted by the interjection and ridicule, two by two, of a scherzo. The scherzo’s end leads to the sorrow and understanding of what must be, and strength of resolution, based on the now altered relationship, resumes. Although its future is yet to be shaped.
I found this approach highly interesting, as it is very similar to the method I chose for my book Golden Shadows, which considers despair and the companionship of music.
I think it is difficult to follow the cues provided by the music unless one is familiar with the Beethoven quartet. Quite a number of critics deride the film because they claim that the narrative does not reach the level of artistic quality as the quartet; of course not: the film does not aspire to do so. So that is hardly the point. The point is that human beings, once repressions are lessened, behave in ways that are both understandable and outwardly apparently ludicrous or insensitive. The second derision is that the rapid changes in behaviour are unbelievable and fragment the continuity of the story. Well, life consistently is far stranger than fiction, and more mutable than art. In keeping with this, all the actions in the film follow almost immediately upon one another, once the previous action or situation begins to dissolve to anticipate something new. Which is exactly how the quartet functions: without stop, without a break, to the point of an exhaustion that must be physically overcome through the insistence and awarness of the mind.
The acting is exceptional: Mark Ivanir as the first violinist, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the second violinist, Catherine Keener as the violist, and most remarkably, Christopher Walken as the ‘cellist. Anne Sofie von Otter, the celebrated Swedish singer, has a very moving cameo appearance, at a critical moment in the story, when she appears, as a gifted mezzo-soprano, in the memory of the ‘cellist, her widower. The aria she sings is not translated, but it is Marietta’s Aria, or Glück, das mir verlieb, from Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt, which enjoyed great success that year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City – where the film is set.
Glück, das mir verblieb, Joy, that near to me remains, rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb. Come to me, my true love. Abend sinkt im Hag Night sinks into the grove bist mir Licht und Tag. You are my light and day.
There are many of these felicitous, often understated, connections throughout the film. One of these is when the 1658 self-portrait of Rembrandt, which hangs in the Frick Collection in New York City, is brought in to comment on the narrative. A second is the parable of Pablo Casals. Another is the presence, during some of the turmoil, of Dewar’s scotch.