Yaron Zilberman’s feature film debut A Late Quartet addresses the epitome of a First World problem: the possible breakup of a renowned Manhattan-based classical string quartet called The Fugue. They’re famous enough to have made it for 25 years of jet setting and recording, but now the Fugue’s cellist and spiritual leader (Christopher Walken) is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and in all likelihood will have to be replaced. As harmony is disrupted, the quartet is revealed to be highly strung, rife with seething resentments and jealousies, particularly between the second violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the first (Daniel Lerner). This is just the kind of glimpse into a refined world that non-latte-drinking-non-Volvo-driving-NPR-listening types assume that latte-drinking-Volvo-driving-NPR-listening types live for; the movie practically has a “kick me” sign on its proverbial back.
If it had been in the hands of lesser actors, I might have done some kicking. But A Late Quartet serves as an acting showcase, particularly for Walken and Hoffman, and makes for an interesting study in artistic ego. Walken has played decent sorts before (remember how sweet he was in Hairspray?) but he makes such a delightful villain (True Romance, Batman Returns), deviant terror (Sleepy Hollow) and/or oppressor (in Dark Horse, most recently) that it still seems like a surprise when he plays someone good to the bone rather than bad. His Peter Mitchell, a recent widower still in mourning, is the paternal glue holding the Fugue together. It can’t have been an easy task, and thus he gives off just the faintest trace of relief as he starts searching for the cellist who can replace him. The viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener) steadfastly refuses to consider the Fugue without him. Meanwhile her husband Robert (Hoffman) seizes the opportunity presented by the shift to announce that he no longer wants to play second fiddle to Daniel (Mark Ivanir, whose brooding handsomeness calls to mind Ralph Fiennes on a grizzled day). Hoffman is playing the antithesis of The Master here; Robert has waited 25 years to muster the courage to ask for a change.
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Hoffman is of course, the master of nuance. When Robert asks to play first violin, he does it so mildly you don’t realize at first what a big deal it is, he’s rocking the boat with a toe only. But that reassuring warmth of his comes through and I rooted for Robert even as I, with an admittedly untrained ear, doubted that he was Daniel’s musical equal. It’s hard to spoil a movie like A Late Quartet—it’s not as if Robert plans to strangle Daniel with the strings of his violin, although that would have made for the movie livelier—but let’s just say, Juliette’s decision to side with Daniel does no favors to her marriage. It began with a shotgun wedding (their daughter Alexandra, played by Imogen Poots, is in her early 20s and an up-and-coming violinist in her own right) and now looks like a quiet misery. When Robert nuzzles Juliette in the morning and she responds with “Robert please, I’m really not in the mood,” Keener’s terse reading of the line begs the question, was Juliette ever? And would she be more in the mood with Daniel?
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The title has multiple meanings. The group’s upcoming performance could likely be Peter’s last hurrah and the quartet may soon be a thing of the past, the “late” Fugue. But what it refers directly to is the music they’re considering playing, one of Beethoven’s string quartets, Opus 131, written late in the composer’s life. As Peter points out in the opening frames of the film, it’s a challenging piece; seven movements of which are to be played straight through without a pause to rest or an opportunity to retune their instruments. (The Brentano quartet recorded the music for A Late Quartet. If Brentano members gave tips to the actors, they should be applauded; wielding their bows, none of the actors look like a rube.) This can lead, Peter tells his class of music students—who provide that neat opportunity for exposition to explain the piece to the musically less educated—to a musical “mess.”
Clearly—and too obviously—this echoes the emotional mess that quickly develops between the players. Peter and Juliette’s crumbling marriage is just the half of it; a burgeoning love affair between uptight Daniel and Alexandra creates more angst for everyone. (Poots gives the movie a welcome jolt of energy and youth.) This is not the first time Opus 131 has inspired a drama. Opus, a 2006 play by Michael Hollinger, also deals with a quartet playing the same Beethoven string quartet during a fractious period (one member has cancer, there is in-fighting between the violinists). Zilberman, who previously made the documentary Watermarks, shares the screenwriting credit with Seth Grossman. There is no reference in A Late Quartet’s credits to Hollinger’s play, so presumably the similarities can be chalked up to the irresistibility of Opus 131 as drama material for string quartets.
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The Brentano quartet provides all the music the Fugue is purportedly playing. If Brentano members gave tips to the actors, they should be applauded; wielding their bows, none of the actors look like a rube. There are modest pleasures to be found in Zilberman’s observations about ego and the rules of attraction. It’s all too believable that the daughter of professional musicians, who felt neglected by them because of their touring schedule, seeks out romance with the powerful alpha of their group, a man who lives an unencumbered bachelor existence replete with sleek cars and clean, modern furnishings. I wish Zilberman had provided more insight to Juliette’s character, whose capacity for cruelty—what’s worse than telling a musician “I think you are the best second violinist out there”?—seems to come out of left field. Maybe the point is that the group has sacrificed some level of humanity to play as one. In a late scene the members of the quartet sit around watching what seems to be a relatively recent documentary or television show, in which Robert rhapsodizes about the Fugue. He tells the unseen interviewer that he had been reluctant to join a quartet, but from the first time they played as “one” he knew they were meant to be together. Real-life Robert watches his filmed self putting a relentlessly positive spin on his choices and shifts a little in his chair; the irony shouldn’t be lost on him. When Zilberman’s frustratingly obscured ending arrives not long after, there is the suggestion that it may have been. If I’m reading it right, the group and the music they make always trumps the individual.