In Claude We Trust [THE ACCOMPANIST]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 1994). — J.R.


(Worth seeing)

Directed by Claude Miller

Written by Miller and Luc Beraud

With Richard Bohringer, Elena Safonova, Romane Bohringer, Samuel Labarthe, Julien Rassam, Nelly Borgeaud, and Claude Rich.

“About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.” — Charles Fort, Wild Talents (1932)

The Accompanist can be viewed as a producer’s film, as a writer-director’s film, and as a quintessentially French film. As a producer’s film, it is the latest in a recent cycle of French art movies involving classical musicians and including extended stretches of classical music — in other words, as a spin-off of Tout les matins du monde and Un coeur en hiver, both huge commercial successes, especially in France. As all three films have the same producer, Jean-Louis Livi, they can be regarded as “Livi films” rather than as the discrete expressions of three directors. Seen as such, they all can be enjoyed primarily as excuses for listening to good music; their dramatic and narrative qualities are strictly secondary.

Alternately, one can view The Accompanist as the latest of the disparate films by Claude Miller, its director and cowriter. Miller started out promisingly as an assistant to some key French filmmakers during the 60s, including Robert Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar), Jacques Demy (Les demoiselles de Rochefort), and Jean-Luc Godard (Weekend). He then served as production manager or production supervisor on Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her and La chinoise and no less than seven Francois Truffaut features, from Stolen Kisses to The Story of Adele H. But Miller’s own early features reflect neither Truffaut’s style nor his vision, only his sort of material: Le meilleur facon de marcher (The Best Way to Walk, 1975) is a story about little boys at summer camp and Dites-lui que je l’aime (This Sweet Sickness, 1977) is an adaptation of an American-style thriller. Moreover, what seemed personal and peculiar to Miller in these two films — characters with a troubled relationship to masculinity expressed through violence — is completely absent from Miller’s most recent features, The Little Thief and The Accompanist. The Little Thief (1988), Miller’s revision of an old Truffaut project, consciously evokes certain aspects of Truffaut’s style and vision, but only the calculating, crowd-pleasing, and affirmative aspects; Truffaut’s morbid and obsessional qualities are absent. And The Accompanist, apart from faintly calling to mind Truffaut’s hokey The Last Metro (1980), which is also set in Paris during the German occupation, shows little to link it with either The Little Thief or Miller’s early features. So to call The Accompanist a “Claude Miller film” is scarcely to describe it at all.

Finally, one might be capricious — in the spirit of Charles Fort speculating in the early 30s on the possible existence of an Ambrose collector in the quotation cited at the head of this review — and theorize that The Accompanist is a “Claude film,” a film by a French director named Claude.

What is a Claude film? Or perhaps more important, who is a Claude director? Excluding Jean-Claudes from consideration — as well as Claudes who are documentarists, such as Shoah‘s Claude Lanzmann — I can think of half a dozen pertinent examples: Claude Autant-Lara, Claude Berri, Claude Chabrol, Claude Lelouch, Claude Miller, and Claude Sautet. While there’s a wide range of achievement represented here — I’d place Chabrol at his best at the top of this list and Lelouch at his worst at the bottom — all these Claudes contribute to an old-fashioned notion of “classic” French cinema. Though they’ve sometimes been placed in opposing camps (Autant-Lara’s old guard versus Chabrol’s New Wave), all these Claudes have produced work that embodies the social and aesthetic status quo.

Indeed, in one way or another, they all share a relationship to a pair of seemingly antithetical but actually related traditions in French cinema. One of these traditions is what Truffaut, in a famous 1954 article, pejoratively called the “tradition of quality.” In his invaluable, recent Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking Alan Williams neatly glosses this tradition as follows: “Autant-Lara and company reduced often great, always highly individual works of literature to the lowest common denominator of the quality historical picture. Stendhal in The Red and the Black, Radiguet in Devil in the Flesh, as well as Colette, Feydeau, and others, serve as grist for this very efficient mill, which seems ever ready to alter and abridge the original works to make them serve up its favored topics of anti-clericalism, bourgeoisie-bashing, and the corruption brought by social and political power.”

The other tradition — supposedly the reverse of the above — is a glib validation of French middlebrow and middle-class culture that might be termed, for purposes of symmetry, the “tradition of banality.” These two traditions come together in the tendency of French society to turn its naysayers into statues and to treat its yea-sayers like poetic rebels. Thus alleged critics of bourgeois culture like Chabrol sometimes sing its praises while poet laureates of conformity like Berri, Lelouch, and Sautet sometimes get improbably praised as subversive artists. And less personal filmmakers, like Autant-Lara and Miller, who mainly depend on adaptations exhibit both dubious tendencies, oozing pat noncomformity and conformity in almost equal measure.

The Accompanist is adapted from a novel of the same title by Nina Berberova that’s quite popular in Europe but less known here. I gather that the novel is mainly set in Saint Petersburg in the mid-30s, while the movie is mainly set in Paris during World War II. According to Miller, the movie was inspired by the novel “in the same way a musician is influenced by someone else’s tune in order to develop his own style of sound. The book gave me the basic root for the story, then provided the freedom to embellish and turn it into my own piece of work.”

Narrated by a poor pianist in her early 20s named Sophie Vasseur (Romane Bohringer), the story begins during the winter of 1942-’43 in German-occupied Paris. Sophie is hired as an accompanist and servant by a glamorous classical singer named Irene Brice (Elena Safonova), who, along with her businessman husband Charles (Richard Bohringer, Romane’s father), owes much of her success to collaboration with the Nazis.

Charles, who is troubled by the moral duplicity of his position, decides after Irene gives a command performance in Vichy that the couple will flee for England by way of a steamer from Lisbon. En route, Sophie is unsuccessfully wooed by a Jewish communist (Julien Rassam) working for the French Resistance. In London, with the surreptitious assistance of Irene’s lover Jacques (Samuel Labarthe), the Brices and Sophie are cleared of connections to Vichy, and Irene resumes her secret affair with Jacques.

Miller notes that he intended the story to shift its focus from Sophie to Irene (during the flight from Paris and Lisbon) to Charles (after their arrival in London), yet the story remains Sophie’s throughout — not only because her viewpoint is the only one that’s depicted, but also because Romane Bohringer commands a lot of interest and attention. (In the forthcoming Savage Nights, a much better film in many respects, Bohringer gives a more interesting performance, taking greater risks and revealing more of herself in the process.)

Richard Bohringer — best known in the U.S. for his parts in Diva, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and the recent Barjo — is an effective character actor who suggests at times a French Peter Falk, but this film gives him relatively little room in which to maneuver his character. We’re told in the dialogue that Charles has lots of “questionable” business dealings but learn so little about them that his war profiteering and subsequent change of heart have to be taken on faith; though his working-class origins are lightly sketched in, the film fails to do very much with them. His mysteriousness, unlike that of Schindler in Schindler’s List, seems vague and nonfunctional. The same thing applies to the perfunctory handling of the communist’s dialogue as well as Irene’s adultery, both of which are delivered to the audience like Pavlovian signals rather than character studies. And the film’s nudging coyness fully matches its obviousness when Vichy premier Philippe Petain (Claude Rich) makes a cameo appearance, though he’s never identified in either the dialogue or the credits.

The central problem, I suspect, is the specter of the novel in relation to the script, which is neither wholly confronted nor circumvented. My nominee for the worst screenplay adaptation last year is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script for The Remains of the Day, the nadir of which occurs when the Nazi sympathies of a British aristocrat (James Fox) are spelled out by (1) his silently reading from an anti-Semitic book while his off-screen voice recites the text and (2) his looking up from the book and ordering a Jewish servant fired. While the handling of motivation in The Accompanist never quite reaches such a primitive level, it reflects a similar mistrust of dramatization combined with a comparable compulsion to tell an audience exactly what to think.

Insofar as The Accompanist is a Livi film, it’s an opportunity to listen to (dubbed) performances by Laurence Monteyrol of vocal pieces by Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Schumann, Schubert, Berlioz, Massenet, and Sablon-Seyder, under the musical direction of Alain Jomy. Insofar as it’s a Miller film, it’s a nostalgic look at middle-class glitz from the ambivalent vantage point of the working class (as represented by Sophie as well as Charles). But insofar as it’s a Claude film, it’s schizophrenic, combining bourgeois escapism (via the music) with antibourgeois skepticism — without ever confronting the audience with the implicit contradiction.

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