I admit that what initially interested me in the French language film Le Concert was the fact that it starred Melanie Laurent, a lovely French actress who caught my eye as one of the leads in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II send up, Inglorious Basterds. Rarely, though, do I let an actress’s personal appeal drive my choice in movies—if word’s out that a movie is a dog, I won’t go see it no matter how personally appealing the cast.
Fortunately, reviews of this limited release foreign language art house film ranged from middling to good, and many cited Laurent’s presence as reason enough to enjoy the film if one was so inclined.
So discovering it was playing locally, I slipped out on a recent weekday evening to catch the film in a tiny theater at L.A.’s Landmark that featured reserved plush sofas rather than traditional theater seating. Though only five people (including myself) were in the theater, we were a responsive audience, which added to the enjoyment of the intimate viewing.
The film is a light comedy farce with some emotional heft thrown in to engage the audience. The story gets started quickly, when a once-respected Russian conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra named Andreï Filipov (played by Aleksei Guskov)—fired 30 years earlier by the Communist regime for political reasons who is now working as a janitor at the theater—intercepts an invitation to the orchestra to perform in Paris. Seeing it as an opportunity to resurrect his career, Filipov decides to reconstitute the original orchestra that had been banished along with him 30 years earlier and travel to Paris masquerading as the Bolshoi.
Soon Filipov is combing the country, tracking down the former members of the orchestra who now live hand to mouth at other jobs. He also recruits an old adversary from the Communist era who was their booking agent to manage them again.
BELOW: Le Concert preview trailer.
As the film progresses, the film gradually reveals that Filipov has an underlying motive for wishing to travel to Paris and perform, which is related to his insistence that a new young talented French violinist named Anne-Marie Jacquet (played by Laurent) solo with the orchestra. As this suggests, the stakes of the performance go beyond just providing an opportunity for Guskov and the others to reclaim their careers—the once nearly-broken conductor also is haunted by an old Cold War secret (shared by some of his colleagues) that is hinted at throughout the movie and, with some minor misdirection, revealed near the end of the movie with emotional resonance during the film's titular concert.
The concert of the title climaxes the story and forms the film's centerpiece, in which a Tchaikovky concerto is performed in its entirety. It is here that the film cleverly brings its loose ends together and provides an emotional payoff. It does so through the deft use of flashback montages, interwoven with the concert, revealing a backstory that inextricably ties the French violinist to the conductor and, indeed, the entire orchestra. A series of flashforward montages are also used to show what happens after the concert. The movie finally circles back to the end of the performance, with the stirring concerto underscoring the emotional release that the performers (along with the audience) undergo at the end of the piece.
What initially surprised me about the film was how much of it took place in Russia: the first third of the movie was filmed on location there—with some marvelous shots of present-day Moscow—and many of the principal actors are Russian, presumably speaking in their native tongue.
Directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu, who emigrated to France from his native-born country as a student, much of the film’s humor comes from the contrast between the bright, modern world of Paris and the more earthy Russian musicians, who have not recovered from their years of persecution and internal exile under Communist rule. (One running gag involves the orchestra’s manager—still a die hard Communist and out of the game for 30 years—insisting on terms that are clearly archaic and anachronistic. On the other hand, he also sagely advises them that it’s expected for them as musicians to be difficult and obstinate.)
Though a few minor characters are clearly there for comedy relief, the principal actors give sensitive and lovely performances, particularly Guskov and Laurent, the latter of whom apparently trained for several months to credibly play violin for the film. Reviewers have noted that the film has its share of contrivances. The one that stretched my credibility the most was the the fact that, due to a series of misadventures, the reconstituted orchestra never has a chance to rehearse before the actual concert, after 30 years of not performing together—though the director clearly wanted to use this to add tension to the story, one must wonder whether this is even possible. But overall the film overcomes these minor distractions on the fairy-tale like story that is punctuated by a wonderful concert performance.