A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012)

It was, curiously, a line by Liam Neeson in “The Grey,” of all films, that came to mind as I watched the emotional unravelling of “A Late Quartet”‘s world-famous string quartet when he describes “men unfit for mankind.” Of course, Neeson’s character in that film was describing “Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes,” while the men (and woman) of this film are gifted, famed musicians who have devoted 25 years of their lives to not only the perfection of, but more importantly the unification of, their craft. To put forth such beautiful music, they have had to shun their individual talents (and, thereby, egos) in favor of making a melodic whole, as well as any semblance of personal lives and continually push back each of their neuroses, insecurities, and foibles as the music comes first, letting those flaws first fester and then grow inside each person until they can no longer be contained. The catalyst of that lack of containment comes when Peter (Christopher Walken), the group’s cellist and oldest member, announces that he likely has the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and will soon have to step down. Now, when this well-oiled machine finally faces its first true threat of breaking apart, the endless rehearsals and the music can no longer serve as a band-aid with which the quartet can mask their previously-disavowed flaws. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) almost immediately brings up, seemingly out of the blue, a suggestion that he and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) switch between first and second chair going forward. He’s not fooling anyone; the idea has been smoldering in him long before Peter’s grim announcement. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), Robert’s wife, must confront her failings as a wife and mother who has mostly forsaken loving relationships for her work – a pitfall of many a professional musician, as she explains to her enraged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning violinist in her own right…who happens to be carrying on an affair with Daniel, the youngest member of the quartet – initially gruff and cold as he tutors Alexandra, now reduced to a romantically-blubbering schoolboy when Alexandra’s bed comes into the equation. I should have no business becoming so absorbed in such melodrama, professional insecurities and romantic tribulations and triangles so well-trodden in lesser films, and yet, the power of these melodramatic sub-plots comes in seeing how each member of the quartet seems so clueless on how to navigate these uncharted waters. They are, indeed, unfit for mankind, or rather, unfit for and unprepared to handle mankind’s desires, hatreds, flaws. The perfection of Beethoven and Shostakovich has done anything but prepare them for the imperfections of being human beings – Peter’s physical decay and mourning of his recently-deceased wife, Robert’s crippling talent-based insecurities and yearning for yet more fame and glory, Juliette’s inability to love, Daniel’s sudden hyper-ability to love – all separate facets of the human experience that they’re just now confronting, as their 25-year shield against such dreaded horrors finds itself dissolving.

As the film progresses, we get tidbits of information here and there concerning the quartet’s relationships and how its members came together – just enough to make us realize that there is a complicated history here, to allow us to speculate on so many different levels. As we learn that Robert and Juliette were practically forced to marry when Alexandra was conceived, Robert uses this fact when confronting his wife about her long-standing emotional distance. When we learn that Peter was in a previous quartet with Juliette’s mother, psychological possibilities abound. Peter is already, clearly, the wise, revered patriarch of the group, but is he literally so, literally a father figure, to Juliette? Does he see himself that way, and indeed towards the others? There are so many more questions to ask about the interpersonal relationships of these four people that the screenplay only hints at the answers to, and you can only come to one reasonable conclusion – 25 years is a long time. A long time in which to play music together, and shun important outside influences – together. For better or worse, they’ve always been able to return to the music, to work off of each others’ personalities and talents to become a whole, made literal by their effortless eye-based communication-without-words during performance that has clearly taken years to perfect. They’re one, a family, overseen not by a quartet’s traditional “leader,” the first violinist, but by the older, wobbly-handed cellist. Christopher Walken sheds his self-parodic image to portray a man with such dignity and grace as I have rarely seen in any movie character. While his fellow musicians flail about in a puddle of their own neuroses, Peter confronts his Parkinson’s on a treadmill with bizarre doodads hooked up to his body with nary a complaint or flash of shame, or sits mournfully in his study listening to a recording of his late opera singer wife, imagining her singing before him. When he explains the nature of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 to his students or tells them about his humorous encounter with famed cellist Pablo Casals, his appreciation towards his chosen art form can be felt on a deep, poetic level. Robert, Juliette, and Daniel no doubt love the music they play – you must in order to achieve their level of talent and fame over so long a period of time – but Peter has gained an introspective admiration for his work, his life, that his younger collaborators have simply not yet achieved. But, if their reaction to Peter’s actions during the performance that bookends the beginning and end of the film is to be believed, if they revere their elder statesman’s heroic acceptance of his fate and his person as much as I do, they’ll get there. They soon may, like Peter, become people as beautiful and complex as the music they play, if they aren’t already, flaws and all.

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1 comment so far

  1. Beethoven string quartets on

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people on this subject, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about!

    Thanks


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