In 1990, when I saw a documentary about the Guarneri Quartet, I concluded that all of us who are not members of a quartet have wasted our lives. The film made it seem that playing in a quartet is the most continually progressive and congenial way to spend a life in art. At last comes another film about a quartet, this time fictional. Musically, it isn’t in a class with the documentary, but it investigates other aspects that result from their long union.
A Late Quartet is the first feature by the writer-director Yaron Zilberman. (Seth Grossman helped on the script.) And we can note immediately that Zilberman has the requisite gifts. Firstly, he has the ability to foresee the shape and temper of his film—here a small, intimate picture reflecting its small, intimate music—and to carry it through. Then he knew he had to have four actors not just of the right personal qualities but of talent that sustained our belief in their beliefs. Thirdly, he had to direct with a suavity that was lively without being stylistically intrusive.
The cellist of the veteran group and its leader, Peter Mitchell, is played by Christopher Walken; the violist Juliette Gelbart is Catherine Keener; the second violinist Robert Gelbart is Philip Seymour Hoffman; and the first violinist Damiel Lerner is done by an Israeli actor, Mark Ivanir, who soon shows that he belongs in this first-class cast. The only other important actor is Imogen Poots, who plays Robert’s student daughter.
One proof of the film’s right texture is the comfort that we feel when the quartet comes on stage at the start to begin a concert. They bring with them a sense of custom and ease. We wonder whether we are going to get a lot of cuts away from the actual playing, but each of the four actors has at least mastered the fingering of some passages, it seems, and by the end of this sequence we are convinced of their music.
Then the film itself, so to speak, begins. At a rehearsal in Peter’s house, he tells the others that he has been having difficulty with his fingers. A visit then to a doctor informs him that he has the beginnings of Parkinson’s. He tells his friends, and besides their personal and professional dismay, the news seems to uncover privacies in them that have long been concealed or are now begun. These include Robert’s daughter’s relationship with Daniel, her violin teacher. These implosions are not of course caused by Peter’s news; his news simply leads them. His farewell appearance, curious indeed, concludes them.
Catherine Keener has been an incisive actress from the start of her career. Mark Ivanir’s talent makes him welcome. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a continually growing force on screen and stage, and this experience with Christopher Walken reminds me that I saw his Broadway acting debut in 1966 when he played a twelfth-century French king. What I have seen of his subsequent career—his Shakespeare and Strindberg and Joyce in the theater, his screen gallery of gangsters and ranch hands and many others, his maddened soldier in Vietnam in The Deer Hunter—compose a vivid gallery to which we can now add his mature and thoughtful cellist. And Zilberman’s alert directorial sensibility is helpful throughout.
Blancanieves, as its Spanish title tells us, is about Snow White. Here she is on film, hardly her first screen appearance. But we can assume that the Spanish writer-director Paolo Berger would not have bothered if he had not had something in mind for her. The Brothers Grimm would have been surprised, possibly amused. One aspect would certainly not have surprised them: since they never saw a talking picture, they would not especially note that this one is silent. Berger adheres so faithfully to fairy-tale style—broad acting and unexplained action—that dialogue might almost seem intrusive, reductive.
The setting is Seville, around 1920, when—apparently—unexpected or unexplained things were likely to happen. A famous matador is about to appear against six bulls, one at a time. His preparations, his entrance into the arena are stunning, as these maneuvers always have been on film. His pregnant wife and a friend watching in the stands with her are thrilled, and we share it—this real-life theater. He disposes of the first five bulls, and we see enough of each to admire him, no matter what we think of the bloody sport. Then, starting on the sixth, he throws a kiss to his wife, and in that diverted moment, a camera flash goes off just as the bull charges. The bull gores him in the back. He is severely hurt. The wife’s shock sends her into labor. He is treated but is left a paraplegic. She dies giving birth to a daughter, called Carmencita.
Time lapses. The friend who had been in the stands is now the child’s stepmother, wicked as the story prescribes. She mistreats the girl as she is growing up, and the matador, now helpless in a wheelchair, who earlier rejected his newborn daughter, now would like to embrace her. Carmencita, growing, pleases him even further with her passion for her father’s profession, and he coaches her. Her stepmother subjects her to hardships and, with with the matador’s money, tries to get rid of her. Indirectly she nearly gets the girl drowned.
By now we are wondering about the seven dwarves. How will this transposed story deal with those Teutonic creatures? Carmencita, now an adolescent, is rescued from death by a troupe of seven clown matadors. She cannot remember her name. They call her Snow White and take her into the troupe. She gets a chance to show her matador skills, and they are all booked for Seville. Her stepmother, who has moved to Seville after the death of her husband, recognizes, through the ads, her loathed stepdaughter.
After Snow White’s triumph in the ring, the story goes into a series of tricks and countertricks, including (believe it or not) a poisoned apple, all of them fitting the general tone and causing the story to swell. There is a conclusion that is almost a definition of the term fairy tale. This suits Snow White perfectly with her matador ambitions, now old enough to fight. All along we have been at least tolerant, more often amused, because the actors have been slightly over-the-top and Berger has a good show-biz eye.
Then we realize another reason why we have been so held. This film, through its silence, is close to a ballet. The actors, good as they are, cannot of course be compared in movement to dancers, but the large-scale story, the absence of words, and the constant music create not so much a return to an old form, silent pictures, as a sort of accidental new form: film-ballet. Daniel Giminez Cacho as the matador, Maribel Verdu as the stepmother, Macarena Garcia as the grown Snow White have done as well as they have perhaps by not being aware of this old-new phenomenon.
This reminder of another art form also came through in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. (A small note after Sean Wilentz’s massive essay on the film in a recent issue of The New Republic.) Almost all of the politicians in the film, with their lofty rhetoric and grand gestures, quite unlike the “regular guys” of today’s politics, kept reminding me of another art: the nineteenth-century theater. We can form some idea of that theater’s acting style through recordings and reviews and biographies and photographs, and like the ballet in Snow White, this kinship is a fairly constant presence here. I wonder which came first, the politicians’ style or the theater’s.