Playing by the Numbers

The scope of French film has certainly narrowed in recent years. If a movie is Gallic, odds are that it deals with the problems of making art, preferably music. Oh, the film may also touch on the complexities of combining art-making with a problematic love affair, but films from La Belle Noiseuse to Tous les Matins du Monde to Un Coeur en Hiver all breathe the same rarefied air. To be sure, each of these films is individually fine, but this is not a sustainable trend, and it's little wonder that French film needs protection from the all-devouring Hollywood blob.

As its title indicates, The Accompanist is also grounded in the making of music. But because it is set in the occupied Paris of 1942, the film includes the theme of political (Nazi) collaboration as well as musical collaboration. It also includes the nearly obligatory emotional triangle, though this one is given a fresh twist.

The film opens with young Sophie (Romane Bohringer) appearing at a recital given by a great singer, Irene Brice (Elena Safonova), who will soon become Sophie's patron. When the awkwardly dressed Sophie walks off a slushy Parisian street into a sumptuous music hall, the film makes its opening point effortlessly: she has lived a physically deprived life ever since the Germans entered Paris. Irene, on the other hand, is married to a collaborator, Charles (Richard Bohringer, Romane's father), who has learned how to take financial advantage of the occupation. So he and Irene live in a luxury that the war has only heightened.

So too do most of the patrons of the music hall Sophie enters. Sophie is so weakened by her own meager diet and so overwhelmed by the elegance of her surroundings, and by the apparently effortless beauty of Irene Brice's singing, that she faints upon meeting the star, who has summoned Sophie to audition for a position as her piano accompanist.

The two women hit it off immediately. Sophie is a sensitive pianist and has her own ideas about how the music should be played, ideas Irene wants to hear. When Sophie is back in her drab apartment, director Claude Miller is a little heavy-handed in showing that her relationship with her mother is strained, so that the young woman will more easily fall into the orbit of the glamorous Irene. But Miller does a fine job of showing how the war affects relationships, just as it has Charles' business. (Recall Oskar Schindler's musing on the secret to his sudden financial success -- "I needed a war.")

Sophie is by temperament an artist, as well as an ambitious young woman. But because the war has left her with a cramped sense of her possibilities, she is willing to lose herself in Irene. There is less of everything now, it seems. Under other circumstances, Sophie may have despised the Brices as opportunists. But now their overabundance of glamour and possessions feels like life itself, and Sophie submits.

Or she tries to, at least. In theory, she's both flattered and grateful to be the accompanist to Irene. In practice, however, she resents her situation. If the Brices originally look like the source of life itself, later in the film Sophie finds herself in a sort of comfortable netherworld. She is still young enough to be forming her own identity, and being cocooned by Irene has thwarted her development. But Sophie has made her deal with the devil, and she feels stuck. She can't tear herself away from having the necessities of life, and even comforts, easily at hand. The world she left behind feels so dead to her (as Yves Angelo's artfully grim cinematography emphasizes) that to return to it would be to enter the void.

But after a time with the Brices, Sophie can't continue to delude herself that they are naturally superior beings, inherently entitled to more. At first she thinks Charles a Parisian sophisticate, a point made clear when Sophie, who is present when another man comes to court Irene, sees how Charles takes the news of his wife's dalliance. The naive young woman is shocked, and impressed, by how casually Charles accepts the information. But Sophie later learns that the cuckold's apparent equanimity came because he didn't feel threatened by this particular suitor. When Charles learns of another, younger man who has a stronger claim on Irene, his insecurity comes to the fore, and his reaction to this rival comes as yet another shock to Sophie. She realizes that the apparently perfect world she has entered is badly out of balance.

At this point, the film becomes uncomfortable. The story's momentum suggests that Charles will turn to the young Sophie for comfort, but the knowledge that the actors playing these roles are father and daughter is a bit daunting. I've seen French films on incest, but with those I rested easy in knowing that the actors weren't flesh-and-blood relations. Here the characters' sexual relations wouldn't produce a two-headed baby, but the actual actors -- well, you get the picture.

But the story avoids this problem by veering in another direction, which raises the question of how casting affected plot. Not at all, I suppose, since the film is based on a novel, but it feels altered.

The film is quite strong up to the point at which Charles and Sophie seem set on an uneasy path. The relationships are engrossingly complex and real, as are the performances. Romane Bohringer doesn't dazzle as she did in Savage Nights, but that's because she's playing a more repressed character. Here she is intelligent and vulnerable and heartbreaking in the way she conveys her character's willing self-betrayal.

Romane's father, Richard (the cook of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), is compelling as Charles. It's a beautifully written role, as Charles moves seamlessly from collaborationist creep to miserable husband, all the while retaining his strong personality. And Elena Safonova is nearly perfect as the cruel angel Irene. Miller directed her to mime the singing (and it's a fine dub job) without showing any strain, so that her soaring voice seems a gift from God -- something she works to perfect out of love, not because she has to.

During a concert of German music given for the Nazis, Irene's rendering of the Laudate Deum from the Mozart vespers provides a striking contrast between the words of spiritual praise that she sings, her own physical beauty and the corruption she carries so weightlessly inside her. This scene recalls the masterpiece of this genre, Mephisto, though without reaching that film's heights -- or depths.

The Accompanist begins to break down about halfway through, when the Brices decide to escape to London. There is an intriguing ambiguity here, as we can't be sure if Charles really wants to escape and work for a free France, if he simply senses that he would be better off in England, or if he thinks the family is escaping Irene's lover. If it's the latter, he's wrong, and tragically so.

That is, it would be tragic, if the story were told from Charles' point of view, rather than Sophie's. But we stay with her, and the film flounders. In London, she is more an outsider than ever. What's more, the story feels compressed at this point, as if the filmmakers were squeezing the novel. The working-out of the various conflicts happens too fast for us to be drawn into Sophie's now voyeuristic relationship with the Brices, and the tragedy the film finally shows us doesn't carry much wallop.

Even so, there is enough here to recommend the film, especially in the performances of the leads. I hope we get to see more of both Bohringers. In the case of Romane, I have no doubt that we will.

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