Performance (A Late Quartet) – Yaron Zilberman’s astonishing debut. (film review)
It is so interesting that I saw The Paperboy a week or so ago, and I put the writing problems of that film down to inexperience. Then I go to see Performance (titled A Late Quartet in the States) and it is easily one of the best films of 2012, coming from a first time director (Zilberman has only made one other film and it was a documentary called Watermark) working from his own script adapted from his own short story. So there goes my ‘first time’ theory. What is even more astonishing about Yaron Zilberman’s first feature film is its cast; Its not often that a first time film maker can cast Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherinwe Keneer in their film. I guess its who you know not what – right?
Zilberman is a huge fan of string quartet music and decided (according to this intereview in 34th Street mag) to use his vast fan-boy knowledge as a base for a film about family drama. It’s the revelations of the daily life of elite musicians that makes the film so special. It’s a 101 of good writing, to educate your audience on a topic they may not be familiar with, and there is little as seductive as the intense commitment and passion artists bring to their work. The mechanics of what it might take to be a part of one of the greatest string quartets for twenty-five years, including the omissions, suppressions, passions and negations of self spill over in a volcanic eruption of profound childishness when it seems as though the quartet may be in its last days due to the diagnosis of an illness for one of its players.
It is the intensity of the eruption of emotion that conveys the underlying messages of frustration, that being an elite musician is all about. Most of the perverse feelings are unleashed sexually, revealing the astonishing capacity for a human being to attack those they love the most in the most brutal ways. When Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) cheats on his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) it is obviously to get her back for never loving him the way he wanted to be loved – a way that would make Daniel (Mark Ivanir) jealous, his lifetime rival for head violin player. When Alexandra (Imogen Poots) seduces and sleeps with Daniel, it is to exact revenge on her parents (particularly her mother / rival) fo0r her abandonment issues. When Daniel sleeps with Alexandra, it’s clearly to exact revenge on Robert who has married the love of his life, and so on. This gives the film the soap opera labels that have dogged it in the reviews.
What rescues the film from this problem is the characters reliasation of their own Freudian destruction techniques, and with the exception of Daniel who takes his own bullshit too seriously, it is the erudition of the individual that gives the film its complex, and therefore more interesting edge. As each character steeps into banality, it is the Christopher Walken character (representing wisdom) that offers the complex advice: If you can’t see that you need to stop this behavior then the quartet has taught you nothing. This elevation of spirit via self awareness rescues the characters and through them the plot from the banal and the tawdry. Amongst its petals are the seeds of answers. It is this quality, subtly revealed by Zilberman with fine writing, that gives the film the edge over others like it and elevates it over the mire of its own narrative.
Of course all of this is only possible with a stunning cast. Zilberman says in the interview mentioned above that he insisted none of the script be changed, however the stars each brought their own interpretations to the roles and contributed heavily to the way they were played. There are times in a film when it is very obvious the director is m0ving a cast around as if they were a chess grand master and there are films where the collaboration between director and actor are clear. This is one of the times when the collaboration is obvious, with the standout being Christopher Walken, whose gentle and sage zen influence stands in such stark contradiction to earlier film persona that in his case the weight of history adds to the power of the role – which is largely to play the weight of historical wisdom. Philip Seymour Hoffman represents the unfettered passion of art while Mark Ivanir, his natural rival as the precision, perfection and practice of greatness embodies his natural rival. Catherine Keener and Imogen Poots ask the question is it selfish to have a child when you have dedicated your life to something else? These questions, rolling around in the sublime beauty of music that cannot be denied as essential, become fascinating in the hands of a competent writer / director and actors who know how to forge a lightening strike with the rise of a brow.