Sounding the Soul

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

His unrequited love for the steely, gorgeous, strangely remote Johanna van Beethoven (Johanna Ter Steege) is the most pathetic and painful of the three stories. Beethoven flirted briefly with the woman; then she married his brother and broke his heart. He seemed to hate her more than almost anyone else in his life, with the possible exception of his late father. His loathing of her was so petty and vindictive that it verged on psychosis.

The Beethoven of Immortal Beloved is nothing like the cackling Mozart in Amadeus. He's more like the misanthropic, woefully self-aware Salieri, but with Mozart's talent. He has his lighthearted moments, and some of the artfully scrambled flashbacks show us a young, trim man with a rakish smile, messy hair and eyes full of life. But for the most part he seems truly tortured throughout his life -- wracked by inner demons he couldn't begin to explain in words, and compelled to express them through his surging, brooding, sometimes apocalyptic music.

It's the deliberate imprecision of Immortal Beloved, the overpowering emotional messiness of it, that hooked me. It paints everything so broadly you can see dried paint bubbles in the brush strokes; it's like a Romantic-era portrait in which the shadows are darker and the emotional tone far graver than in reality. The film soars straight toward the center of an artist's soul, then veers off, tantalizing us. It gets close and then backs off, acknowledging the limitations of art, respecting the mysteries of human character and refusing to pretend it has all the answers.

The star, whom I've despised for some time, deserves much of the credit for making the film work. Sometimes a movie star can become so enamored with the accessories of a Method-constructed part -- the diction and accent, the mannerisms, the makeup and costumes -- that he forgets how to draw on his own emotion to pull everything together. He constructs a convincing shell, then doesn't fill it with anything. That's been Oldman's problem, more often than not: as an actor, he was all prizes and no Cracker Jacks. Yet he's brilliant as Beethoven -- tragic, scary, loathsome and touching.

Oldman's face is suffused with pain and joy, yet you can't read into it deeply because his emotions are so idiosyncratic. His inner turmoil is so obvious and affecting that it's hard to resist being drawn to him, yet there's also a core of unnamed rage inside him that pushes people away. This Beethoven is a human being, but the forces that drive him remain a mystery.

Many sorrows pass through Beethoven's warped mind -- busted relationships, financial troubles, even political backbiting and bloody war -- and they emerge transformed into art. But the film is too smart to make a simple equation of this: it never says, "Here's the Fifth Symphony, which was inspired by the horrifying advance of Napoleon's troops." It instead allows Beethoven's art to mirror and capture the events he witnessed and endured -- capture them vividly, but imprecisely. Like emotional X-rays, the symphonies tell us what was going on inside him, but they never presume to tell the whole story. The film is less a biography than an wild, colorful ode, full of dramatic flourishes and unexpected chord changes and bizarre, sometimes laughable inventions. It's like a piece of music: variations on a life.

Immortal Beloved.
Directed by Bernard Rose. With Gary Oldman, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino and Johanna Ter Steege.

Rated R.
128 minutes.

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