Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert is a film about the enduring repercussions of an act of Soviet anti-Semitism…sort of. At times it’s actually more of a comedy about a group of shabby, loud Russian musicians horrifying the starchy Parisian artistic establishment. It’s also a familial drama in which a young woman finds her roots and a father figure through the power of music. In short, The Concert is a few too many things.
That said, it’s a difficult film to dislike. Its appealing hero Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov), one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, had been fired under Brezhnev for protecting his Jewish musicians. In the middle of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, a Communist lackey stormed onto the stage and snapped his baton in half. Now, decades later, the Soviet regime has fallen, but Filipov is still scrabbling together a lowly existence as a janitor where he once conducted.
Then, in the first of a series of improbable strokes of luck, Filipov intercepts an invitation for the Bolshoi to perform at the Châtelet Theater in Paris. He decides to perpetrate what must be the most admirably-intentioned scam ever conceived in the art world: to reassemble his long-languishing ex-orchestra members, bring them to Paris posing as the real Bolshoi, and finish the concert that was interrupted thirty years ago.
The early scenes play farcically, though anchored by Filipov’s sincerity, as the conductor and his cellist best friend Sacha (Dmitri Nazarov) gather the dissolved orchestra. Broad, if affectionate, stereotypes predominate: a yarmulke-sporting clarinetist who agrees to the venture when Filipov promises that Parisian Catholics have all secularized and the city features “a synagogue on every street”; a roguish gypsy violinist who turns his audition into a riotous dance. Everything seems to go smoothly, because for this film musical talent is more or less a divine spark that never diminishes even after thirty years of dormancy. None of the musicians fail their impromptu auditions–not even the ones who pawned their instruments long ago.
But once in France, the impoverished Russians terrify the Châtelet’s administrators with their brawls, irrational demands and general penchant for mayhem, before sauntering away–bellowing drunkenly, of course–into the Parisian night. It seems Sacha and Filipov were the only ones truly determined to put on a show. Everyone else was just desperate for a pass out of Russia. Can Filipov awaken the love of music within the hearts of his errant musicians and save the faux-Bolshoi Orchestra?
Silly question. It wouldn’t be much of a comedy otherwise. But Mihaileanu makes a strange decision: in an attempt to deal with the tragic backstory, he steers his movie into melodrama. Filipov has requested Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), a French classical music star and prodigy, for the Tchaikovsky solo. His reasons for picking her are soon revealed to be more complex than artistic admiration. Anne-Marie has a mysterious connection with the past, and she seems essential to the conductor’s recreation of the ruined concert of long ago. I won’t say more on why this is so, although the script makes it a little too easy to guess. But the film needs all of Guskov’s appeal to smooth over this odd mood change as Filipov the underdog turns into Filipov the haunted genius.
A smoother script would have helped, but even the best comedy writers would have trouble fitting a terrible story of political persecution into the relatively contained frame that The Concert provides for its backstory. Not that humor isn’t allowed to touch the worst of the twentieth century. But The Concert simply doesn’t have room for the emotions that stories about anti-Semitism and repression evoke. It’d rather supply us a sentimental, nonsensical reward for our brush with the past.
Luckily, the payoff sort of works. How many films trumpet the power of our cultural heritage to liberate and unite us? It won’t spoil The Concert to say that it climaxes with the most insane optimism on film since Disney movies dropped their once-perfunctory closing rainbows and off-screen choirs. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto causes French snobs to throw roses in slow motion, jaded professional critics to dissolve into ecstatic tears, Communists to believe in God, closeted men to kiss each other in helpless rapture, etc. Mihaileanu’s standard of restraint means not showing an entire audience having a collective, musically-induced orgasm.
The Concert is a peculiar film, and not a great one, but its fantasy is temptingly innocent. Like its hero, it wants us to love Tchaikovsky. I can’t resent it much for that.
Directed by Radu Mihaileanu; written by Mihaileanu, Alan-Michel Blanc and Matthew Robbins,; director of photography, Laurent Dailland; edited by Ludovic Troch; music by Armand Amar; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.