Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review - The Concert (Le concert)

The Concert is a two-hour movie, but it's only the final twenty minutes you'll really remember. The film is an awkward, unsubtle piece of work that often missteps in its storytelling, but director Radu Mihaileanu gambles everything on his finale, and he just about gets away with it. The story is a silly piece of fluff from the first minute. Aleksei Guskov (Andreï Filipov) is the central character, and the way this figure is introduced is a joy; we see a series of beautifully lit shots as Guskov conducts an orchestra, but the spell cast by this music is abruptly broken by Aleksei's mobile phone, which starts ringing and gives away his position as an unseen observer in the rafters. Although Aleksei was once a renowned conductor, he is now no more than a lowly janitor working behind the scenes at the theatre.

Aleksei's downfall occurred thirty years ago, when he incurred the wrath of Brezhnev by including Jewish musicians in his orchestra. Disgraced and downtrodden, the former conductor has spent the subsequent decades dreaming of his former glories, but an unlikely opportunity for redemption presents itself when Aleksei intercepts a fax intended for the Bolshoi orchestra. Why not get the old gang together and take the Bolshoi's place at their Théâtre du Châtelet appointment, he reasons. Never mind the fact that most of them haven't picked up an instrument in thirty years, never mind the fact that many of them don't have passports, never mind the fact that the plan itself is riddled with plot holes and leaps of logic that even the laziest viewer could identify. Such concerns are mere details, and Radu Mihaileanu appears to be a director with little time for details.

Mihaileanu paints in the broadest of strokes. His characters adhere to lazy stereotypes, with all Russians being oligarchs, gangsters, communists or hucksters, and a band of gypsies being called upon to procure dodgy passports and those much-needed instruments. The director creates scenes of chaos, like the wedding that descends into a shootout or the nightmare of trying to control a horde of drunk Russian musicians on the streets of Paris, and at times he generates an infectious, Kusturica-like manic energy. He's less successful when he tries to balance that tone with the more emotionally loaded strand of the narrative, and some of the scenes that build up to a revelation about violinist Anne-Marie (Mélanie Laurent) are laboured and dawdling. I did appreciate the way Mihaileanu set us up for a particular kind of revelation, however – one that I was dreading – before adding a late twist that made it a little more palatable.

A couple of key central performances keep The Concert grounded in a sense of reality, and keep Mihaileanu's rickety crowd-pleaser on the rails. As Guskov, Andreï Filipov is a hugely endearing and empathetic lead, while Dmitri Nazarov brings warmth and humour to his role as Aleksei's loyal, bear-like chum Sacha. But the real pleasure of the film is Mélanie Laurent. She gave one of last year's finest screen performances in Inglourious Basterds, and here she is wonderfully understated, providing this hectic film with a vital calming presence. She is also at the centre of the extraordinary finale, and I think the main reason The Concert has a chance of being a breakout hit is because this ending is almost guaranteed to leave audiences both applauding and weeping. Past, present and future collide in the climactic performance, and Mihaileanu's ability to whip scenes up into fervour reaches its apotheosis here, with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto enabling the sequence soar to new heights. Of course, to swallow this turn of events you'll have to accept the fact that a ragbag bunch of musicians could bring the Parisian audience to its feet without a single moment's rehearsal. A load of nonsense? Absolutely, but The Concert made me laugh a few times and it ultimately made me cry, and I find it very hard to argue with a movie that can do that.