By Shonni Enelow
Dir. Angela Schanelec, Germany, Cinema Guild
There is no music in the first third or so of Music. There are sounds: a crash of thunder, a wail of grief, a baby’s cry. The sounds and images that comprise the opening sequence have no clear relation: someone has died on a mountainside, and a baby is found in an animal shed; someone is lying on the ground wounded, the baby is being taken somewhere, two women walk through a village, and soon a group of teenagers are in a stopped car. Three of them go swimming in the clear, rocky sea; the other one, left behind, has red sores along his ankles and feet. He reads in the car, and then there’s another teenager, and another, who pushes him into the bushes while the first one, with dark hair, the one we might now realize we saw before in the first sequence, wounded on the mountain, holds him down and tries to kiss him. The boy shoves him violently, then runs towards his friend, and we see that the dark-haired one has hit his head on a rock and died.
The nearly wordless opening telegraphs a story whose significance for the film’s narrative only becomes clear later, when we follow the young man, Jon (Aliocha Schneider), to prison. Here, he is spotted by a young warden, Iro (Agathe Bonitzer), and it is where we first hear classical music, from a cassette tape played in his cell. Time throughout Music speeds up and slows down, as the punctuation of violence gives way to a wash of the minor and everyday, which feel dreamlike in their lightness after the density of death. At first, for instance, I thought we might be seeing a dream of Iro’s when we see her and the young man calmly teaching schoolchildren in a courtyard, then I realized the film had moved forward in time, after the end of the young man Jon’s sentence, and he and Iro were now a couple.
As with so much of her previous work, Angela Schanelec’s Music moves in fits through such disjointed, resonant, and almost abstract scenes. In Music they are punctuated by repeated frontal shots of two or three people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line, watching someone on the ground, wounded or dead. Twice that death happens on a road: the image of the dark-haired boy, bleeding from the head, is echoed late in the film when a pedestrian is killed by a car. These accidents, framed by Schanelec with the image of wordless spectatorship, reveal the film’s interest in the contingency of tragedy, its very arbitrariness the source of its uncanny intensity: we never know at what moment death will come; when it comes for others, we feel awe, along with pity and fear (these, for Aristotle, were the feelings tragedy impelled).
You don’t need to know that the filmmaker was inspired by the story of Oedipus to pick up on the evocation of this power of tragedy, or the setting in a heightened, mythic Greece. The film has an elemental strangeness that feels close to the world that ancient tragedy depicts: we see a forest, we see water, we see blood. The gestures as well have a schematic size that matches it: the embrace, the grab of the wrist. But the film also uses strategies of mise-en-scène available only to cinema, with Schanelec’s striking uses of the close-up, particularly on hands and feet. The hand of the boy Lucien gripping Jon’s in coercion; Jon’s wounded feet, as he wraps them with bandages; Jon and Iro’s hands in the rushing water of the sink. Jon and Iro return to the town where Jon is from and have a daughter; the family picks pomegranates and watches soccer, until the idyll is broken when Iro makes a phone call and learns that Lucien was the one Jon killed.
Once Iro dies, the film’s tension slacks. We’re in Berlin, where Jon and his daughter seem to have moved, and Jon has a new girlfriend, who maybe has a father they all live with; their significance, in comparison to the tense family scenes in Greece, feels harder to read. In Greece the images had a frightening depth, and the silences are full, taut; in Berlin, where we get most of the film’s music—in the form of a soft rock band Jon now fronts—the frame flattens and the compositions become pedestrian. That soft rock band (the songs are by Doug Tielli, a Canadian singer-songwriter) shift the tone of the film towards the present and the contemporary, undercutting the abstract temporality that gave so much of the Greece section its uncanny power. In the Greek prison, where the prisoners wear beautiful knit white clothes and the high clogs (cothurnus) of ancient tragedians, Jon sings an aria. His voice is high and clear—and unexpected, as we have barely heard him speak. But later, singing with a guitar in a contemporary studio, the familiarity of the tone and style draws the narrative towards questions of psychology and character that until now the film had rigorously occluded. The music no longer reads as “music” (as an aria, by, say, Purcell, can, to a contemporary ear), or “classical.” The question becomes one of Jon’s personality, his tastes, even his experience in the specific idiom of the folk-rock-harmony we were hearing. It lost its abstraction.
Similarly, although the beauty and strangeness of the prison sequence is bolstered by the neutrality of the performances, at other points, and certainly in the Berlin sequence, Jon’s face simply feels blank. Oedipus-like, he goes blind, gradually and then perhaps all of a sudden, in a police station where he goes to return the briefcase of a man killed in the street, but the inexpressiveness of the performance makes the change difficult to parse. Similarly, the coldness of Bonitzer’s performance as Iro, while moving in the prison scenes (where her impassive demeanor felt fitting and set off the intensity of her gaze at Jon), makes the discovery leading to her suicide confusing; it’s impossible to tell the significance of Lucien’s death for her. In the film’s final section, the symbols blur as well, and the new characters clutter the sparseness of the tale. But the liveness of Schanalec’s images in the first two thirds of the film overshadow it: the thud of the car stopping with the teenagers; Jon and the prisoners in the shower wearing their cothurnus clogs; Iro’s friend smoothing a printed sheet over the bed; Phoebe in the back cab of a motorcycle going up the mountain. The power of these images is in their abstraction, their gestural intensity that needed no words.