[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. A Late Quartet opens today in limited release.]
I love it when films help me to understand a new culture. Usually, I visit these new cultures through documentaries, but Yaron Zilberman‘s non-documentary feature A Late Quartet captivated me with an introduction to the world of orchestral music. More impressive, he uses a technical explanation as a gateway to the conflict between his central characters. Their instruments are thoughtful metaphors for their personalities, and we see how the pursuit of personal expression through a musician’s art can both divide and unite his or her group. The movie does hit a false note when it forces a conflict between two characters, but for the most part, the cast, the story, and the setting play together in perfect harmony.
The Fugue String Quartet is about to enter its new season. First violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), violist Jules (Catherine Keener), and cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) have been playing together for twenty-five years. Daniel is the group’s founder, Robert and Jules are married, and Peter is the elderly heart of the group. When Peter confesses to the group that he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and will likely have to retire, it sets off a chain reaction where the group’s dynamic is severely tested. Robert feels like a new cellist offers the opportunity for him to alternate first violin with Daniel, but Daniel and Jules disagree. Daniel also begins mentoring Jules and Robert’s daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), which leads to other complications.
These conflicts are made so much richer because they’re set in a world that will be foreign to most viewers. I didn’t know how quartets operated, how their business worked, their particular brand of celebrity, and the affect on their off-stage lives. Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman also do a wonderful job of explaining how a good quartet functions as a musical group. In a fantastic monologue, Alexandra explains to Daniel why she thinks the quartet works so well together, and the importance of each instrument. She notes how each instrument relies on the others, and the fullness of the quartet’s music resulting from the complimentary personalities.
The personal lives of the quartet are entwined with their music. Robert is overwhelmed with insecurities, Jules tries to be the mediator, Daniel wants to keep the group in line, and the sorrowful cello captures Peter’s depression at losing his gift and the quartet. But Peter is also the baseline, and despite the upheaval in his life, he wants to make sure the quartet can carry on with a replacement without missing a beat. There’s a constant pull between selfishness and selflessness in the quartet. Peter is endlessly giving, but his fellow musicians are at odds with trying to figure out if they’ll have to sacrifice the quartet for happiness outside the group (it’s worth noting that Peter’s wife, Miriam, died the previous year, so his actions are even more impressive when you consider the quartet is the only family he has left).
Thanks to the excellent performances from the cast, the majority of the conflicts ring true. However, despite strong turns from Ivanir and Poots, the relationship between Daniel and Alexandra feels like a poor way to create character arc for Daniel and establish tension between Jules and her daughter. A far more organic conflict comes between Robert and Jules. They need to be equals in the quartet, but he wants his wife’s support in helping him expand beyond the second violin even though she thinks it would be best if he Daniel remained the only first violin. Jules and Robert want to keep their work and personal lives separate, but A Late Quartet illustrates that their art is reflection of their lives.
Until I watched A Late Quartet, I never understood the art behind music. I knew it was there, but the movie explains how one’s emotions can enter into the tight confines of a composer’s piece, and how the choice of piece can in turn reflect the emotions of the musician. I now understand why playing an instrument simply isn’t a matter of hitting all the notes, and how a collaborative group like a quartet becomes even more complicated as four individual artists must find a way to blend their art, and therefore their personal lives, into something grander than what the individual could achieve. A Late Quartet never reaches for grandiose aspirations of using the story as an exploration of music theory. Instead, it keeps a handle on the intimate story between the characters, and enriches that story with an eloquent appreciation of how art and life play in concert with each other.