A Late Quartet (Performance)
Firstly, no, I am not actually talking about the recent pensioner pleasing picture about the elderly opera singers in a special retirement home; that is a different movie entirely. This is just one of those A Single Man / A Serious Man situations that sometimes arise and as this picture, my particular preference of the two, was the second to see release – lending some literalism to its otherwise outstanding title – it was unfortunately seen as secondary. Perhaps once some time has passed the two will separate and the stronger film will be able to stand on its own as Beethoven arguably did from Mozart with the very late quartets in question; I certainly hope so, because although it is far from perfect there is something special to be found in this film, something that the replacement title, Performance, doesn’t quite capture.
Another reason that the original title is such a great fit for the film is that we come into this story – both through the in media res intro and the actual opening scene – of a struggling star quartet so very late in their tale, we walk in late to the show but somehow still manage to be moved by it. Primarily this is because although this may be their seventh movement – the quartet late in another way, deceased – we are handed bars of their sixth and prior as scatterings during the dialogue and through a few pieces of prescient film-making so that by the end we are aware of the entire incestuous history of this quartet. There is something remarkably lived in about this film, there is a history to every role, to every relationship and it is fascinating to dig up and discover these even if when found the relic is rather tarnished as a result of its burial; none of the plots themselves are all that remarkable or new, they are repeating motifs rearranged here well enough.
This classic status extends to the actors at the films core, all four members of the quartet are high quality character actors: Walken, Keener and Hoffman ( Yes, this film also has a Hoffman of its own) are all favorites of mine and deliver here as they have so many times before, though occasionally in new ways. Mark Ivanir, who I wasn’t so familiar with, more than holds his own with the highly esteemed ensemble; about as big a compliment as one could give I think. A Late Quarter is certainly a classy film about a classy subject but thanks to this cast you don’t need to be completely high-class or an expert in classical music to enjoy it. Though music is their focus the film itself spends more time on the social and humanitarian issues of its characters than their performances; think the films of Nicole Holofcener minus some of the more obvious comedy. Though its title suggest death A Late Quartet is a movie about life, it’s just that for its characters life is classical music.
This is nowhere more clear than in the scenes showing Christopher Walken’s Cellist as he lectures students about his art. His two monologues are marvelously written, effortlessly equating elements of composition and recital with equivalents in external reality and the structure of the film that follows; poetic and philosophical in equal parts. I am ashamedly something of a Luddite when it comes to the likes of Ludwig, able to appreciate his music on a mere audio level but unable to read it or read much into it; A Late Quarter worked well as a sort of primer for such abilities. Concepts such as attacca and fugue are here translated, through the prism of the characters, into a cinematic language that I can much more easily comprehend; their implications here though are meaningful in the same way as there are to music: ambiguously, mischievously swirling through and between the beats, open for your own personal reading.
So there is something very special about this picture, particularly when it has the cast pick up their instruments, and that primarily stems from the careful composition of Writer/Director Yaron Zilberman; it’s clear that this script has come from very close to his heart, that it was a project of great care. This film though is Zilberman’s feature debut, it is only early in his career, and so although the script is solid and the cast compelling without the cohesion of a strong director – their role very much akin to that of second chair violin – the end result is unfourtunately a little less than its stellar parts. There are a few bum notes and a lack of looming vision that let this film down, depriving it the same status given to the titular quartets, but for a first try it is both an impressive and unique debut. As much as I do love Dustin I much more want to see what Yaron can do next. He is Alexander, the rising star.