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Sounding the Soul

Flawed but passionate, Immortal Beloved takes us inside the genius of Beethoven

In the middle of the public premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the elderly, decrepit, bitter composer leaves his seat in the audience and wanders on-stage, as if drawn by a supernatural beacon.

By this time in life, Beethoven is deaf; to sense his own music even faintly, he must stand very close to the instruments performing it, so that their vibrations smack against his body like waves rolling in from an ocean.

He's remembering an incident of childhood abuse at the hands of his drunken father when he evaded the man's rage and fled wildly through a moonlit forest. We feel as though we're in familiar musical biography territory: in reimagining his past before our eyes, the hero is explaining why he composed a great work of art.

Yet there's nothing on the face of Gary Oldman, who plays Beethoven, to suggest such a simplistic reading. As flashbacks unfold, frame by sumptuous frame, and the movie returns periodically to Beethoven to show us how he's feeling, the man's face isn't saying, "This music takes me back to that awful childhood incident that inspired my Ninth Symphony." It's saying something more complicated -- that the incredible intensity of emotion expressed in this work of art compels him to ransack his memory for equally intense emotions.

It's a very fine distinction; the fact that Oldman and the movie bother to make it at all is extraordinary. And Immortal Beloved is full of moments like this -- moments that take us deep into the soul of art and the artist, moments that transcend the constraints of commercial cinema and suggest the unsuggestable. It's one of the most passionate and eloquent films about art ever made.

Written and directed by Bernard Rose, a former music video ace whose career in features has been disappointing until now (he made the striking but uneven horror dramas Paperhouse and Candyman), the movie is so in love with its subject and with the process of filmmaking that it sometimes hurtles headlong into its own ambitions. The film is drunk on its own passion, yet this drunken, passionate quality is so winning that it keeps pushing the film forward even when it begins to stumble.

Immortal Beloved isn't a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination; its structure is derivative, its first half can be pretty slow going and its attempts at bawdy humor often fall flat, probably because Rose is better at gloom than cheer. But at its best -- namely, when the movie is examining the ways an artist's emotion fuels his life and art and forces them to fuse and intertwine -- it's mesmerizing and sometimes deeply moving.

In a bald-faced steal from Citizen Kane, the film begins at the end of Beethoven's life, with the elderly composer changing his last will and testament on his deathbed. He asks for a scrap of paper and scribbles a message asking that everything he owns be left to his "immortal beloved." Then he dies, leaving his assistant, Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), to wander Europe interviewing every woman his master ever loved and trying to determine which one should be given his estate. The narrative takes the form of a detective story in which the search for an heir is a pretext for unlocking the mysteries of a genius' inspiration.

Schindler narrows his search down to three serious contenders, and in flashbacks we're told their individual stories. The first is Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), a beautiful countess. Beethoven was so enraptured by her charms that he gave her piano lessons even though he could barely hear what he was supposed to be teaching her. In her memory we can see how deeply frustrated Beethoven was by his deafness, and how he expressed this frustration by humiliating her. Giulietta loved him anyway, of course. She's like a modern day pop groupie, so spellbound by a famous man's music that she overlooks his personal shortcomings.

Beethoven also dallied with another countess, a Hungarian angel named Anna Marie Erdsdy (the incomparable Isabella Rossellini, whose beauty as a camera subject is exceeded only by her keen reactive skills as an actress). They met when Anna came to see him conduct the Emperor Concerto -- an infamous moment of public humiliation that revealed Beethoven's deafness to the world. He'd been fooling people for years, diverting attention from his hearing problems by affecting a daft, haunted, aloof persona. But with a baton in his hand, he couldn't fake things anymore. His gestures didn't match the score, and the musicians got confused and resentfully quit playing.

In this scene, Rose's touch is astonishingly precise, finding just the right mix of embarrassment, astonishment and horror. In a bravura trick, which recurs periodically throughout the film, he cuts between what the musicians and the audience members hear -- a roaring, magnificent symphony -- and what Beethoven hears -- an abstracted, soupy storm of thuds, whines and distant hums, overlaid with a persistent, awful hiss, like the tide coming in. Anna walks to the front of the concert hall, takes Beethoven's hand, and leads him away. Soon, they're in love. Unfortunately, Beethoven thrives on self-loathing; he's most effective as an artist when he's at his most miserable. He makes her miserable, which in turn makes him miserable and ensures his own perfect loneliness.

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