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It's late 17th century. The viola da gamba player Monsieur de Sainte Colombe comes home to find that his wife died while he was away. In his grief he builds a small house in his garden into which he moves to dedicate his life to music and his two young daughters Madeleine and Toinette, avoiding the outside world. Rumor about him and his music is widespread, and even reaches to the court of Louis XIV, who wants him at his court in Lully's orchestra, but Monsieur de Sainte Colombe refuses. One day a young man, Marin Marais, comes to see him with a request, he wants to be taught how to play the viola. Written by
Daniel Bjoerkman <Daniel.Bjoerkman@p16.lurivax.ct.se>
[in French, using English subtitles]
Open your mouth so we can hear you. I can't follow you. You're not listening. You're going too fast. Let's start over with the first notes of the song. Stop! The Master has signalled. The Master would speak. Speak, Master.
Each note should end dying.
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'Tous les matins du monde' opens with remarkable, yet quiet and simple audacity. For ten minutes, over the credits and beyond, the camera holds on the pained face of Gerard Depardieu. This shot, about as minimalist as you can get, manages to suggest so much: the actual scene itself (Depardieu as Marais giving a music lesson in Royal Chambers to a number of inept students), his own life and sense of failure, aging, dissipation of talent and emotional paralysis despite the signs of status and wealth, the intimations of a past and a place so alien to the modern and showy Court as to be on a different plane of time and space altogether. It is brilliant cinema, while seeming not very cinematic at all.
'Matins' combines two genres I generally find loathsome and redundant, and yet it is very nearly a masterpiece. First of all, it is a biopic; not really of Marais at all, but his one time teacher, Sainte-Colombe, solitary genius of the viol, and possibly the first Romantic artist, someone who composed not for Royalty or riches, but fore himself, from his own soul, alone. The problem with biopics is that they try to cram a whole life into two hours. This clearly doesn't fit, and so only the most superficial precis is possible, with a string of 'key' moments of formative psychological importance. The end result is something like those brief synopses of authors' lives you get at the beginning of books.
Corneau avoids this trap in a number of ways. There is the general atmosphere of fairy tale - the king and his courtiers; the 'cruel' father and the children he locks up in cellars; the abandoned lover and her jealous sister; the fairy-tale location, with its picturesque fragments of classical splendour, and moonlit tarns; the ghost story intrusion of revenants; the mysterious stranger who overturns the family's lives. This extends to the light, the mysterious blue glow that leaves the narrative in a twilight suspension. Depardieu's narration has the unadorned, measured simplicity of fairy tales, and the unmarked accumulation of events gives a timeless feel, one seperate from the historically verifiable Court.
Further, the film doesn't try to cram in the whole of Sainte-Colombe's life. The couple of decades it does deal with are marked by seeming repetiton and monotony. When he claims at one point to have an exciting emotional and imaginary life, his interlocutors are shocked, because they can only see the historical, physical, dour image, not the magic of a mind that converses with the dead, or outpours the most ascetically mournful music. There are key events, but these are domestic and personal (eg the death of his wife) that slowly shape his personality and the events of the film, not jarring 'Eureka!'-like moments. It is up to us to interpret the patterns, the reality behind the plain image, the unmovingly stern face, the routine events.
By the climax, the film stops being a biopic or historical reacreation, and becomes a heightened, spiritual embodiment of ideas about music, family, tradition. This is not to say the film is vague and ahistorical. It is very good about the marginalisation of equally talented women in this world of obsessive male art, where the only useful female is a dead one; and the brief, comical treatment of arbitrary monarchy is as pointed as anything in 'Ridicule'.
The other genre the film belongs to is the dreaded costume drama, that puffed up fashion parade of bourgeois aspiration, where the allusion to people who used their brains is enough to satisfy audiences who refuse to use theirs; where cufflinks and frills are creamily fetishised, and everything else - plot, character, ideas, subtext - is a mere mannequin. If the average costume drama is marked by bustle and excess, Corneau's film is private and austere. The only lavish costumes are made the object of ridicule - Sainte-Colombe, dressed in black and ruff like Monteverdi, and his daughters, live in sober surroundings, and dress very modestly. The usual period props - big homes, lavish halls, etc. - are stripped bare, become almost cell-like, unmarked by human residue.
This extends to the shooting style. The camera very rarely moves, framing the 'action' like a painting or a tableau vivant - the film's fertile theatricality extends to hearing feet thudding on the boards. This seeming visual parsimony is not too austere - unlike the films of Ozu, say, the static picture is broken up by regular editing which makes viewing less taxing. Corneau has learned a lesson about period dramas from Stanley Kubrick, director of the greatest period film, 'Barry Lyndon'. It's useless getting hstorical facts right and swamping the plot with detail - the heart and soul of any society is in its culture, and so Corneau, by recreating or alluding to famous paintings, music etc. gets closer to the truth of his characters. And the lighting...!
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