Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Directed by: Radu Mihaileanu
Written by: Radu Mihaileanu, in collaboration with Alan-Michel Blanc and Matthew Robbins, from an original story by Hector Cabello Reyes and Thierry DeGrandi
Produced by: Alain Attal
Released by: The Weinstein Company
107 min. Rated PG-13 in U.S.
In French and Russian with English subtitles
With: Alexeï Guskov, Dimitry Nazarov, Mélanie Laurent, Miou Miou, Valeri Barinov, François Berléand, Anna Kamenkova

Once upon a time, in the 1980's, the U.S.S.R was still a Communist dictatorship where political protesters were punished for life and Jews were singled out as scapegoats. The Concert is a delightful, heartwarming take on the legacy of the people who bore the brunt of those purges as they scramble for a second chance in the new capitalist Russia. Writer/director Radu Mihaileanu blends this serious topic with magic realism, as he did in The Train of Life (Train de vie), but with more humor and pointed satire, and a happier ending like in his Live And Become (Va, Vis Et Deviens).

From the opening scene where the conductor so intently leading the Bolshoi orchestra is revealed to really be the janitor just observing up in the balcony, trompe l'oeil is the ongoing joke. The frustrated janitor is Andreï Filipov (Alexeï Guskov), and he has been living in limbo for 30 years since his career was destroyed when he tried to defend Jewish musicians in the orchestra from dismissal. While late at night he still drunkenly moons over his favorite Tchaikovsky scores, his loving wife Irina (Anna Kamenkova Pavlova) has scrappily adapted to the new realities by hiring their old friends out as extras to swell a crowd, whether for political demonstrations, where old Soviet medals are for sale, or the social events of the nouveau riche – as long as they also get fed.

But opportunity knocks – actually the fax machine rings – when Andreï, like a Cold War spy, intercepts a request from French impresario Olivier Morne Duplessis (François Berleand) for the Bolshoi to fill in for a sudden gap in the schedule at the Theatre Du Chatelet (after all, the Russians are cheaper than Americans these days). Andreï rounds up his faux Bolshoi orchestra in a hilarious take-off of an Ocean's 11+-type team reunion, that is still a poignant commentary on what musicians who were formerly at the top of the craft have been reduced to in capitalist Russia:
His sidekick and friendly ally in this enterprise is the portly, sad-sack cellist Sacha Grossman (Dmitry Nazarov), whose family has emigrated to Israel.

An elderly Orthodox Jewish musician has been training his son more in taking over his black-market trading business than in either religion or music.

A violinist has returned to his family's gypsy camp and smuggling ways.

One musician is moving furniture, and another is a cab driver.

The former company manager Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) was a discredited KGB informer, but now Andreï even lets bygones be bygones in enlisting him to pretend to the French he is still running the place. His dusty dreams of a Communist's triumphant trip to socialist Paris are as rusty as his French, like the sailor's out-of-date tour book of New York City in On The Town, and lead to a series of comic contretemps in Paris that recall the former East Germans in Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye, Lenin!. (The English subtitles do a marvelous job of conveying the Russians' antiquated or broken use of French.)

Even this still loyal apparatchik has to admit that cold hard cash is needed to get a classical band of brothers to France where they can collect their fees. What uproarious luck that "The Tsar of Gas", one of those notorious oligarchs who controls the country's lucrative natural resources, is an amateur cellist who always wanted to play with the Bolshoi. He is more gangster than buffoon in playing to his self-interest. And then there's passports, instruments, and formal wear still to piece together.

In this cross-cultural production, the Russians are played by Russian actors (and a scene was really filmed in Red Square). They are probably unfamiliar to international audiences, but are all wonderful to watch, even in surmounting some good-natured stereotypes, with Guskov a stand-out encompassing comedy and pathos.

The erstwhile conductor has one more piece of the puzzle to complete for his dream to come true, and the film teases the audience what is his raison d'être in reaching out to a renowned 29-year-old (her age is a clue) blonde French violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent, with spunky resonance to her role in Inglourious Basterds) to be the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. First he has to get past her protective manager Guylène de La Rivière (Miou Miou, in the most dramatic role in the film), who has been the orphan's guardian since her childhood and who is mysteriously familiar with the Russians. The will-she-or-won't-she perform with the faux Bolshoi orchestra (and why) is a key point of suspense.

Landing in Paris, the film veers towards being as silly, with a bit of slapstick, as if it were an updated cross between the Cold War-era spoofs The Mouse That Roared (1959) and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), with the players frantically reverting to their capitalist survival strategies instead of their obvious need for rehearsing, while the manager leads a small cadre in a rousing rendition of The Internationale. But the back story of the persecution the Jewish musicians endured brings fortissimo emotions to the fore (in glimpses of an ordeal like Eugenia Ginzburg's portrayed in Within the Whirlwind).

Andreï's heartfelt declaration that music is where the individual and the collective work together to seek harmony and happiness is shown to cross boundaries of time and space. Even with ten minutes shaved off the Concerto for dramatic purposes, their climactic performance is as irresistibly thrilling and touching crescendo as any underdog team - presto--winning the big game in a sports movie, and just as sentimentally satisfying.

(Commentary on the Jewish women in the film.)

July 27, 2010

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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