How does this French/Russian arthouse comedy, um, conduct itself? Is this particular "Concert" a perfectly-pitched blend of plot, theme and emotion? Or, asks Kimberly Gadette, does the film slide into sheer cacophony?
While this film plays with numerous genres, it is a maestro of none. Incorporating comedy, family drama, fairy tale and political history, it changes tune and tempo throughout. Gypsies run amok through the streets of Paris, a partial ensemble bursts into an impromptu rehearsal on the Metro, and an elderly Jewish musician and his son attempt to sell contraband caviar. It’s all underscored by cruel Russian dictators, renewed Communist fervor, poverty, dashed careers and destroyed families.
An early synopsis dealt with a sham Bolshoi orchestra in Paris, attempting to pass itself off as the real thing. But Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu reworked the story, centering on the 50-year-old Andreï (Alexeï Guskov), a onetime brilliant conductor of the Bolshoi, demoted to a janitorial position when Brezhnev broke up his orchestra in 1980, expelling all the Jewish musicians. Known to imbibe a few, um, Borscht belts too many, the luckless Andreï suddenly springs into action when he spies a fax coming in to the Bolshoi director's office, inviting the orchestra to play at Paris' famed Théâtre du Châtelet as a last-minute replacement for the LA Philharmonic. Intercepting the message, Andreï believes this just might be the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to gather up his displaced musicians of thirty years ago and take on the engagement himself, leading them all to glory with the help of his slightly unsteady baton ... at least for one night.
In the opening scenes, the film promises great fun as Andreï and his first cellist, Dmitry Nazarov's Sacha (currently working as an ambulance driver) scurry around Moscow, rounding up the various members of the old gang. They visit gypsy camps, Jewish ghettos, porn houses and it seems that none of the members of the erstwhile Bolshoi are all that upbeat about their lives. Rather, they're singing the blues, barely able to scrape two rubles together. No surprise, they all jump at the chance of redemption.
Which makes it all the more illogical when they don't show up at the Châtelet for rehearsal. We're just as confused as the solo violinist, French rising star Anne-Marie (Mélanie Laurent), who is apprehensive enough about having to bow the bejesus out of Tchaikovsky's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. She can only hope that this visiting throng of Slavic musicians are merely eccentric, rather than rabidly unprofessional.
Though the piece has a certain energy, it seems that filmmaker Mihaileanu works and overworks the borderline frivolity in favor of digging deep into the meat and Russian potatoes of this piece. Fake passports are slapped together at the airport, in full view of Russian officials. The manager almost blows the negotiations over his insistence that he dine at a certain restaurant – which unbeknownst to him, no longer exists. There are constant references to the language barrier, the Russians attempting to communicate in a halting French. But when Andreï, Franco-fraught and tongue-tied in one scene, can suddenly, effortlessly speak perfect French in the next, the credibility goes out the fenêtre.
If Mihaileanu wanted to involve us in a film about misplaced Russian artists, a love story or two, and a reunion between an older man and a budding talent, then like his rag-tag orchestra, he needed to step up. A shame that he simply didn't save the slapstick for a rainy day. I understand Russia has plenty of them.
Happily, the fictional virtuoso and the lead actress virtuoso are one and the same, none other than Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds). She generates an on-screen authority that is seemingly ages older than her twenty-seven years, a versatile, intelligent performer, effortlessly switching from hot to cold as the scene requires. Here, she rescues what could be thwarted comic moments with her reactions, staring straight ahead at the sheer stupidity of it all. Yet when called upon to expose her deepest vulnerabilities, she is fearless. Without her considerable talents, The Concert could have even more discordant.
While lead actor Alexeï Guskov turns in a decent performance, neither stirring nor lackluster, it is Nazarov's best friend Sacha who brings a merry mischief to the whole. Unfortunately the film becomes so cluttered with multiple wacky, half-written characters racing through, that Mihaileanu misses the chance to explore a resonant few. Such as Andreï's wife Irina, performed with great spirit by Anna Kamenkova Pavlova. Introduced as a shrew, yammering on about her work and the household finances, when we look again, we see a woman who is fully committed to her husband. She is his lover, protector, supporter ... and perhaps the most interesting person that the filmmakers overlook.
Duly noted: like an overanxious cymbal player, crashing out of control throughout the symphony, there's so much peripheral noise that we can barely hear the music of the piece. But for heaven's sake ... don't play it again, Sam.
Rating on a scale of 5 boating accidents on Swan Lake: 2.5
Release date: US= 30 July 2010 (ltd, NY/LA); UK= previously released 31 December 2009
Directed by: Radu Mihaileanu
Screenplay by: Radu Mihaileanu, in collaboration with Alan-Michel Blanc and Matthew Robbins
Based on the original story by: Hector Cabello Reyes & Thierry DeGrandi
Cast: Alexeï Guskov, Dmitry Nazarov, Mélanie Laurent, François Berleand, Miou Miou, Valeri Barinov, Anna Kamenkova Pavlova
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = 15
Running time: 119 minutes