Wednesday, March 4, 2020


Directed by Francois Girard and starring Tim Roth as Martin, Clive Owen as David Rapoport. Based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht.

THE SONG OF NAMES has lured me back into the movie theaters, after a period of absence through indifference to a recent string of forgettable titles. And for me it was a welcome return. Here is a movie that is about something. It is about friendship, identity, and betrayal. More importantly, it is about the power of music—the power of a song to remember and memorialize life and loss.

The abrupt disappearance in 1951 of young violin virtuoso, David Rapoport, moments before his London concert debut, precipitates a 35-year search by his boyhood friend, Martin. The motives behind Martin’s quest are complicated: Not only is he trying to solve a mystery, but he wants to avenge a tragedy: David’s desertion of the concert was a betrayal of Martin’s father, who had sponsored the concert at great cost, and who subsequently had died of a heart attack.

This information comes to us only gradually, by fits and starts, through a series of flashbacks, while Martin spends decades relentlessly tracking David’s course from London to Warsaw to America and back to London.

The flashbacks reveal that the two friends had first met in 1939 when David’s father entrusted his ten-year old violin prodigy to Martin’s family before taking his family back to Poland. The two boys conquered their initial hostility and bonded in friendship during to the London Blitz and beyond. It is only when, shortly after the war, David learns, almost by accident, of the fate of his family during the Holocaust, that he abruptly deserts the London concert, regains the Jewish identity that he had abjured, and embarks on an odyssey of his own that eventually takes him to Treblinka, the site of the deaths of his family and millions of other Jews. There, amidst the grave markers, he again takes up his violin and plays a song—
the song of the movie’s title—the song whose melody he has composed to a text comprised of the names of the Jewish dead.
Martin knows nothing of this when he finally catches up with David, now living quietly in a Jewish faith community in London. A phenomenally gifted violinist, he no longer pursues a concert career. He performs music exclusively in the service of this faith. Martin’s anger at David quickly turns to sympathy. But not before he demands that David finally redeem the tragedy that befell his family and perform the concert that he had abandoned thirty-five years ago.

This time David shows up. He performs Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Then, unexpectedly, after the intermission, instead of playing music by Bach, he reappears garbed in traditional Jewish cloths and plays the music he had composed for his “Song of Names.”

Then, true to form—he disappears. Again.

The letter he leaves behind is an apology to Martin for the pain his past actions had caused his family. He wants only to turn his back on a selfish life of personal gain and return to his faith community.

But there’s more. It turns out David has more than his desertion of Martin’s family to atone for: There’s the mystery of his actions immediately prior to that concert of long ago. It’s a mystery that only Martin’s wife can solve: She confesses: Martin had been with her.

Martin says nothing. But he turns inward and, in the dark, silently recites Kaddish for the friendship that once was.

This is only one among many wonderful set pieces of the film. There is an impromptu violin duo of Paganini’s music between David and another boy while huddling in a London bomb shelter. In another scene, David stands alone in long shot performing his Song of Names in a Triblinka memorial site. And there’s the key sequence of the film, when David first visits a London Jewish community and hears the Rabbi chanting the music and the names of his own family, victims of Treblinka. The collective impact of these musics and these names is overwhelming.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020


Written and directed by Celine Sciamma and starring Noemie Merland as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Heloise.

“Do all lovers feel they are inventing something?”

The question hovers over two women who indeed are inventing something—not just creating their mutual love but telling a story about it.

Which also describes what writer-director Celine Sciamma is doing in the acclaimed French film, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. She inscribes on the screen a series of deft images, that coalesce into an unusual love story, a process not unlike the painter named Marianne whose brush strokes on canvas gradually reveal a portrait of the woman who will become her lover.

Marianne has come to the wild coast of Brittany on a commission to paint a portrait of young Heloise. In this world of mid-18th-century France, a woman’s portrait introduces her to the hitherto unknown man she has been obliged to marry. Thus, we can understand why Heloise is reluctant to sit for the portrait which, in effect, will seal her doom. What results is a miracle that nothing to do with the arranged marriage: While Marianne studies the face and form of her subject, Heloise all the time is looking back at her—in effect, painting Marianne’s portrait. Call this a dual portrait. Call it a collaboration.

Which brings us to the central conceit of the movie—the relationship between Marianne the artist and Heloise her lover is compared to the Greek myth of the poet Orpheus and his great love, Eurydice. According to the myth, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to retrieve his lost love, Eurydice. With the power of his words (the song) and his music (the lyre), he persuades Hades to release Eurydice to the upper world. But there is a catch: During the ascent, Orpheus is forbidden to look back at her. However, pausing on the threshold, torn in a moment of doubt, he does look back. And loses Euridice. Moreover, Orpheus himself is forbidden to return and he is slain.

What is the meaning of this story? The Romantic philosophers, for whom this myth is a key text, suggest that while Orpheus yearns for ideal love, he is ultimately trapped by the impossibility of his dream, claimed by the pragmatic reality of the everyday world. This is called THE ROMANTIC IRONY: The true Romantic never attains—or even deep down never wants to attain—that higher realm that he’s yearning for.

Heloise offers her own interpretation as to why Orpheus looks back at Euridice: “Maybe Euridice asked him to.” It’s a startling insight. It is Euridice, not Orpheus, who seals the lovers’ doom. Let’s consider this in terms of this movie: When Heloise returns Marianne’s gaze, their fates are sealed. Like Orpheus and Euridice, they are fated never to be together. While Marianne loses Heloise, Heloise must live on elsewhere in an arranged and loveless marriage. Both are condemned to an emotional limbo.

This brings the film to a beautiful, yet tragic conclusion.

So far so good.

But I have a problem with all of this. It involves the music on the soundtrack. Early in the story, Heloise tentatively pick out a few notes of a melody on the piano. This is music, she says, that burns in her memory, something she had heard once before. And it is this music that wells up on the soundtrack—the only moment in the film when orchestral music is heard— during the final scene in an opera house as Heloise, now a married mother, looks back, in effect, and laments the lost love for the absent Marianne. We might expect this music of memory to be the most famous music ever composed to evoke the Orpheus myth—Gluck’s “Dance of the Furies” from his opera, Orfeo and Eurydice. But instead, to my shock and disappointment, what we hear instead is the “Summer” section of Vivaldi’s The Seasons! While this music in its violence bears a fleeting resemblance to the Gluck, it is not the Gluck. Director Celine Sciamma must have her reasons for this unfortunate substitution, but for the likes of me, it seems that she is evading the core myth she has been at such pains to create.

Now, go ahead and blame me for committing the cardinal sin of movie criticism—rewriting the movie.