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Music Movie Review: German Author Angela Schanelec’s Elegant, If Highly Enigmatic, Modern Myth
The 2019 Silver Bear winner returns to the Berlinale with a film inspired by the tragedy of Oedipus, starring French actors Aliocha Schneider and Agathe Bonitzer.
Writer-director-editor Angela Schanelec began making films in the early 1990s, building a respectable body of work as a key member of the Berlin School of Art and an essayist based in the German capital . But it wasn’t until her latest feature, I Was at Home, But…, that the 61-year-old director finally received recognition in the United States, including a comprehensive retrospective at Lincoln Center which took place in 2020.
Home was a tough look through payoff, enigmatically telling the story of a family overcoming the untimely death of a parent. Schanelec’s latest film Music may prove even more baffling to audiences, though it is filled with some of the director’s hallmarks: beautifully composed long shots; an elliptical narrative that leaps through time without warning; discreetly restrained performances that focus more on gesture than dialogue; and a surgically precise use of sound and music.
While Home won the Berlin Silver Bear in 2019, it’s hard to see Music doing the same, though it will likely appeal to Schanelec fans. It premieres in the main competition of the festival together with works by Berliner Schuler members Christian Petzold (Afire) and Christoph Hochhäusler (Until the end of the night).
“Loosely inspired by the Oedipus myth” according to the credits, with “loosely” the keyword here, the film is mostly set in Greece at an unspecified time that looks like the 1970s or 80s. But because time itself is always quite elusive in Schanelec’s work, it’s hard to say exactly when the story takes place or how long certain events take place.
Another feature of Schanelec’s films is the use of off-screen space, with important events occurring during ellipses or simply away from the camera. Knowing the story of Oedipus doesn’t help much here either. In this version, the tragic hero has been renamed Jon (Aliocha Schneider), while his love interest is no longer his mother Jocasta, as in Sophocles’ play, but a prison guard named Iro (Agathe Bonitzer).
The two first meet after Jon is imprisoned for accidentally killing a young man while on vacation with his friends, in a sequence expertly filmed in the Aegean Sea. Collaborating again with cinematographer Ivan Markovic, Schanelec captures the kind of landscapes in which one imagines early Greek tragedies were staged, as if he were looking to the terroir far more than the actual text for inspiration.
Jon and Iro fall in love, and before you know it (it’s literally hard to tell when anything actually happens in the movie), he’s out of prison and living with his parents, his wife, and their new daughter, Phoebe (played by Frida Tarana, then by Ninel Skrzypczyk). Domestic bliss, with problems bubbling just beneath the surface, is something Schanelec has portrayed in many of his films, and we see Jon and Iro’s lives begin to unravel as a twist of fate returns to haunt them.
It is difficult to anticipate a story whose plot will be impenetrable for many viewers, although it is important to mention that the last part of the film takes place in Berlin, where Jon, who seems to lose his sight like Oedipus, has become a successful musician . The final reels feature a pair of beautifully rendered studio performances in which Schneider performs songs by Canadian recording artist Doug Teilli, delivering the music promised by the title and a much more upbeat ending than the classic tragedy.
The title Music also refers more generally to what Schanelec was looking for in the original myth, namely the musical resonances he creates between the different characters, as well as between the characters and the places they inhabit. His film is full of silences or semi-silences in which no one speaks for long periods, yet in those moments there is also music, as if people simply interacted by sharing the same space.
However, what makes his latest work particularly difficult to understand, though never unpleasant to watch, is the combination of myth with a banal, everyday realism that is too fleeting to appreciate. While Schanelec’s previous films have focused, for the most part, on the lives of German families or young people, here we are never sure who Jon and Iro are, or why they are played by a pair of French actors who are fluent in Greek .
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whistles its own tune.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Aliocha Schneider, Agathe Bontizer, Marisha Triantafyllidou, Argyris Xafis, Frida Tarana, Ninel Skrzypczyk
Director, screenwriter: Angela Schanelec
1 hour 48 minutes