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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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As a professional musician, there are two things that happen in films that are likely to make me quite angry. One is a general concern, and the other is a more elemental notion of the nature of music. This movie deals with both quite well.
The general concern deals with seeing somebody playing an instrument in a scene. It is very rare to see somebody in a film that really looks like they are playing the instrument they are holding. I will grant that it is unrealistic to expect a leading player who has devoted his/her training to the art of acting to be fully proficient on an instrument that a role may require, but more often than not, they are simply given the instrument without any sort of coaching on how the instrument should be held or where their hands should be when the instrument is making a certain sound. When this happens in a film, my ability to suspend disbelief goes right out the window never to return. This is not limited to lead players, however. Often a band that is supposed to be playing music in the background is made up of actors that have no conception of the operation of the arcane devices they are holding. To add insult to injury, the soundtrack seldom matches up to the instrumentation of the band. This movie does an admirable job at keeping things believable in this regard. The instruments are held correctly. The hands of the actors move as they should. With only a few exceptions, the instruments you hear are the ones that are on screen. Even in terms of historical ideas of ornamentation and execution, this movie has done its homework. It seems that most moviemakers regard music as trivial, and thus, they make little effort for accuracy where it is concerned. This movie, perhaps, works harder at it because of its subject matter, which leads me to part two of this diatribe.
What is music? That is the central idea of this film. There is also a story involving a master viol player and his young student who seduces and abandons his eldest daughter, but it is simply a frame for the central question. If you attempt this sort of thing, you are on dangerous ground as far as I am concerned. It is an attempt that isn't made very often. Movies like Amadeus and Farinelli, entertainment value notwithstanding, are more about the personalities involved, and music is the frame rather than the central question. Others, like the contemptible Mr. Holland's Opus, boil the answer down into some trivial concept like "Let the music play you." The answer is not that easy. Speech may not even be capable of expressing it. That is the struggle of this film. The young student is quite talented. His technique is immaculate. The master sees and admits this quite freely. He is even unconcerned that the young student is taking some of his ideas and using them in his own music for publication. He has nothing to teach him as far as technical matters go. His struggle lies in making him a musician instead of a glorified musical acrobat. In this framework, it would be easy to degenerate into the flaccid trivialities that Mr. Holland's Opus embraces, but this film does not do that. It even lines these idiotic platitudes up in order to shoot them down. (In a scene later in the film when the young man returns to the master's villa to hear him play before he dies, the master asks him, "Have you learned that music is not for kings?" "I have learned that music is for God." he replies. The master answers, "No. God can speak for himself.") It is a tangled and complex question. All of the simple generalizations are systematically lined up and exposed for the twaddle that they are.
So what is the answer? This film knows, but if you don't have some inkling of the answer, you may come away from this film with nothing more than an interesting story set in the music world of 17th century France. I have no idea if the historical details of the story are accurate, and it doesn't matter a jot if they are or not. This movie is about a difficult and complex idea that few have even attempted to tackle, let alone delineate it so beautifully. If the question can be answered for you, this film will do it.
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