‘Music’ Review: German Auteur Angela Schanelec’s Elegant if Highly Enigmatic Modern Myth
Writer, director and editor Angela Schanelec began making movies in the early nineties, building up a respectable body of work as one of the key members of the Berlin School of arthouse auteurs based out of Germany’s capital. But it wasn’t until her last feature, I Was at Home, But…that the 61-year-old filmmaker finally received recognition in the US, including a full retrospective at Lincoln Center that took place in 2020.
Home was a difficult through rewarding watch, enigmatically telling the story of a family getting past the premature death of a father. Schanelec’s latest film, Music, may prove even more puzzling for audiences, although it’s filled with some of the director’s signature flourishes: beautifully composed long shots; an elliptical narrative that jumps ahead in time without warning; quietly contained performances that focus more on gesture than dialogue; and a surgically precise use of sound and music.
The Bottom Line
Whistles its own tune.
While Home walked away with Berlin’s Silver Bear award in 2019, it’s hard to see Music doing the same, even if it will probably appeal to Schanelec’s admirers. It premieres in the festival’s main competition alongside works by fellow Berliner Schuler members Christian Petzold (Afire) and Christoph Hochhäusler (Till the End of the Night).
“Freely inspired by the Oedipus myth” per the credits — “freely” being the key word here — the film is set mostly in Greece at an unspecified time that looks like the 1970s or ’80s. But as time itself is always rather elusive in Schanelec’s work, it’s hard to say when exactly the story is taking place, or for how long certain events are happening.
Also characteristic of Schanelec’s movies is the use of offscreen space, with major events occurring during ellipses or simply away from the camera. Being familiar with the story of Oedipus won’t be of much help here, either. In this version the tragic hero has been renamed Jon (Aliocha Schneider), while his love interest is no longer his own mother Jocasta, as per the Sophocles play, but a prison guard named Iro (Agathe Bonitzer).
The two first meet after Jon’s been incarcerated for accidentally killing a young man while on vacation with his friends, in an artfully filmed sequence set against the Aegean sea. Teaming up again with cinematographer Ivan Markovic, Schanelec captures the kind of landscapes one imagines the first Greek tragedies were staged in, as if she were seeking inspiration in the terroir much more than in the actual text.
Jon and Iro fall in love, and, before you know it — literally, it’s hard to know when anything actually happens in the film — he’s out of jail and living with his parents, his wife and their new baby daughter, Phoebe (played by Frida Tarana, later by Ninel Skrzypczyk). Domestic bliss, with trouble bubbling just beneath the surface, is something Schanelec has depicted in many of her movies, and we see the lives of Jon and Iro begin to unravel as a twist of fate comes back to haunt them.
It’s hard to spoil a story whose plot will be impenetrable to many viewers, although it’s important to mention that the film’s last section takes place in Berlin, where Jon, who seems to be losing his sight like Oedipus, has become a successful musician. The closing reels feature a couple of beautifully rendered studio performances in which Schneider interprets songs by Canadian artist Doug Teilli, delivering the music promised by the title, and much more of an upbeat ending than the classic tragedy.
The title Music also refers more generally to what Schanelec was seeking out in the original myth, which is the musical resonances she creates between the different characters, as well as between the characters and the places they inhabit. Her film is filled with silences or semi-silences where nobody speaks for long periods, and yet there’s music to those moments too, as if people were interacting merely by sharing the same space.
Still, what makes her latest work particularly hard to grasp, though never unpleasant to watch, is the combination of myth with a banal, quotidian realism that’s too fleeting to appreciate. While Schanelec’s earlier movies focused, for the most part, on the lives of German families or youngsters, here we’re never sure who Jon and Iro are, or why they’re played by a pair of French actors speaking fluent Greek.
In that sense, Music seems to be more of a tribute to the director’s unique aesthetic — her specialized use of image and sound, of character and landscape — than anything resembling a narrative, even if there are bits and pieces of story scattered throughout. It’s the celebration of a vision Schanelec has meticulously honed over the past three decades, like a late sonata by a composer who has fully come into their voice.
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