Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musical Interludes I: Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Jakob Gimpel's hands playing Liszt's "Un Sospiro" in Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Every time someone is playing a musical instrument in a movie, I can't help but pay attention to how realistic the performance is. And since I'm an amateur piano player myself (something my neighbors will never stop thanking for) I particularly enjoy scrutinizing finger movements on the piano keyboard when an actor is performing, or pretending to. Do you have the same compulsion?

The much-abused "realism", as elusive a concept as the reality it pretends to postulate, possibly has a more straightforward meaning when it comes to music performances in movies. In principle, it's always possible to determine if the performer's gestures correspond to the notes heard on the soundtrack  provided that we can see the performer's hands clearly enough  or if instead there's no match at all. This is particularly true of the piano, since it's easier to visually identify a note by a piano key being pressed than, say, by a guitar string being plucked. How much, we could ask, do filmmakers care about authenticity in musical performances? Conversely, how much do we accept playback as a part of cinematic artifice?

First of all, we can distinguish three degrees of realism in film scenes involving musical performances. Why exactly three? Well, I guess in some way we are all victims of Hegel's trichotomy.

1) The melody has no resemblance whatsoever with the actor's gestures. This rarely happens as a result of a conscious choice (see the trumpet scene in Mulholland Drive). More often, pragmatic considerations or a mere lack of concern come into play.

2) The performance matches roughly the soundtrack. In this case the match isn't perfect, yet a certain effort has been put into coordinating soundtrack and gestures. A nice example is the furious piano duet between Donald and Daffy Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, where the perfect rhythmic synchronization between action and music isn't accompanied by an equally perfect correspondence between melody and fingering.

Donald Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
3) The performance matches the soundtrack with high precision. Here we could make a further distinction, and ask whether (a) the music we hear is actually being played by the actor himself/herself, or if (b) actor and performer are two different persons. For example, I'd bet that the piece played by Miss Coggins in Turner ("Dido's Lament" by Henry Purcell) comes out of the piano we see on screen, courtesy of actress Karina Fernandez; whereas Elijah Wood isn't actually playing Victor Reyes's "La Cinquette" in Grand Piano, no matter how realistic his performance  composer John Lenehan is playing. In case (a) it's also useful to distinguish between a performance recorded live onstage like in our Turner example (perhaps the highest degree of realism achievable) and one synchronized with images in post-production, like in most music videos.

This differentiation in no way implies a hierarchy. Realism is only one of the options available to filmmakers, and we shouldn't be biased toward it. Sometimes it's just out of place, or would require too disproportionate an effort to be achieved. For one thing, not all actors are musicians, and even in this lucky circumstance, filmmakers could choose to shoot with little regard to verisimilitude anyway, for example due to time constraints, or in case the piece were too demanding for the performer's skills. Instead, what we should ask ourselves is whether realism is or isn't functional to a particular scene.

A further clarification: Of course we are chiefly speaking of diegetic music, i.e. music that is part of the story world, although I have a nice example in mind that stretches categories a bit  and no, it's not the harpist-in-the-closet scene in Bananas. Maybe I'll talk about it some other time. By the way, if you'd like to share your observations, suggest any film scene you find interesting, or just remind me of how futile the job I'm doing here is, please don't hesitate to use the comment section below.

The scenes I'm going to discuss here involve the piano (as I've said, this is an instrument about which I'm less likely to talk utter nonsense). The film in question is Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls's 1948 melodrama based on the novella of the same name by Austrian author Stefan Zweig. It is the story of a life-long obsession: Young Lisa (Joan Fontaine) becomes infatuated with a philanderer and second-rate concert pianist named Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) who lives next to her apartment. After a night of love that fades completely from his memory, but Lisa will treasure as the most significant event in her life, she becomes pregnant. She eventually decides to keep the baby without telling him, unwilling as she is to beg him to take the responsibility for it. Years pass and Lisa gets married with another man, but her love for Stefan is hard to forget. They meet once more years later, but again, he only has a vague feeling of having met her somewhere before. Tons of melodrama ensue. In a way, one might see the story as a powerful warning against the long-term side effects of one-night stands.

Ok, I confess my wholehearted irritation at this film. Its obvious sympathy for the victim seems to imply that Lisa's conduct is praiseworthy, even heroic in its own perverse way. But a woman who willingly chooses to sacrifice her life to a man who apparently deserves all our contempt (but according to modern standards would just pass as a mild womanizer) is at best masochistic and at worst stupid (reverse the order if you prefer). I couldn't swallow the Grand-Finale-That-Makes-A-Lot-Of-Sense either. This could really be the most antifeminist movie I've ever seen; pro-abortionists might find in the story a good argument in support of the cause. You might say that all this has more to do with the book than with the film itself, but heck, it wasn't me who decided to make a movie out of such a pathetic material. (I began trying to be as objective as possible, and ended up bashing an all-time classic... I suppose Umberto Eco would count me among those "legions of imbeciles" he recently inveighed against.[1])

Putting aside my personal aversions for a moment, let's consider the scenes in which actor Louis Jourdan plays the piano. In order to properly judge the effectiveness of these scenes, we have to take into account that music for Stefan is not only his job, but the very essence of his free-spirited life. And what's more important, his talent is what makes Lisa fall in love with him in the first place. Thus you would expect his piano performances to be at least mildly realistic; well, that's what I expected. Curiously, instead, Jourdan moves his hands randomly on the keyboard, with the fingering sensationally out of sync with the notes being played. But what catches the eye most, and should also be evident to non-players, is that his body movements are stiff and awkward. In fact, one doesn't use only the fingers to play, but the whole body, an aspect Jourdan doesn't pay the slightest attention to. The impression is that he had never sat in front of a piano before; we can only imagine Joan Fontaine's efforts to appear ecstatically enraptured as Jourdan plays a discordant sequence of notes.


A not-so-enraptured Joan Fontaine.
In another film, having an actor ineptly faking a pianist's gestures wouldn't be as catastrophic as it is here. But in this film, it's not just a matter of realism. I think Jourdan's inexperience with the piano deprives his character of much of his charm, to the point that it becomes hard to believe that a whole existence could be sacrificed to him by virtue of his talent. Moreover, Jourdan's manifest unfamiliarity with music strikes a false note, if you pass me the expression, in a film which is otherwise as visually accurate as only an Ophüls film can be. Ben Hur's wristwatch wasn't half as distracting. (I know, I know, it's an urban legend. But if it had happened, it wouldn't have been so distracting.)

A scene near the film's beginning, however, is shot in a completely different way, and seems to confirm that Ophüls had some concerns about Jourdan's ineptitude at the piano after all. In fact, this scene intercuts shots of the actor half hidden behind a grand piano with low-angle close-ups of hands performing Franz Liszt's “Un Sospiro”, while Lisa is shown dreamily listening to the music in the house's courtyard. No wonder that fingering and music here are perfectly synced, since those hands are not Jourdan's, but belong to Polish concert pianist Jakob Gimpel (1906  1989), who not only recorded the soundtrack but is also credited as on-screen participant. In this case, having a piano double doing the hard work doesn't sacrifice the scene, because music isn't something the protagonists are experiencing together; what matters is the effect of music on Lisa, whose existence Stefan ignores. But Ophüls must have felt that this wasn't a satisfying option when it came to showing their only night together. In what is the film's turning point, music is supposed to make them connect, and acts quasi as a Hays Code-safe foreplay for their never-shown sexual intercourse. Framing them from the chest up, or intercutting shots of hands playing, would have just killed all the romanticism and the suffused sensuality of the encounter.


We know that the choice of Jourdan was imposed by Rampart Productions, the production company formed in 1948 by Joan Fontaine and her second husband William Dozier. Letter from an Unknown Woman was their first film produced together; they fell in love with Zweig's novella, and decided that Jourdan was perfect for the role. Jourdan is undoubtedly good in the film as a callous, self-centered Lothario; we cannot blame him for not also being a piano virtuoso. It is interesting, however, to register that his deficient skills as a pianist played little or no part in his casting.

Was there ever a more inconsequential topic? you might ask. If there certainly are more significant factors contributing to the film experience, nonetheless it seems to me interesting to explore how diegetic music can shape our responses to movies, and play an essential role in creating the fictional world in which we immerse ourselves. For me, watching Jourdan plonking away on the piano was the proverbial hole in the paper sky [2] (or the bug in the matrix, if you prefer), but it's very likely that viewers with no experience of playing piano would have a totally different response.

In conclusion, I'm left with some questions:

  • How has the depiction of musical performance evolved across the history of cinema?
  • Is there any correlation between the accuracy of such depiction and geographical/social factors? I'd expect verisimilitude to increase with the development of musical literacy in a particular country/historical period.
  • How has our sensibility toward musical performance changed from the early years of cinema? How does musical foreknowledge shape our response to a film?
  • What do film scenes involving diegetic music tell about the overall film? What considerations guide filmmakers' decisions in regard to realism in such scenes?

Tough questions, for sure; I don't expect to ever answer any of them. I'll just keep them in mind as I (hopefully) consider more "Musical Interludes".




[1]^ "Social media have given the right of speech to legions of imbeciles."
This caustic remark, pronounced on June 10th, 2015 in occasion of the conferment to Eco of the Degree honoris causa in Communication and Media Culture by the University of Turin, has raised many controversies on the Italian newspapers and on the internet.

[2]^ "The whole difference, Signor Meis, between ancient and modern tragedy consists in this, believe me: a hole in the paper sky." (Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal)

1 comment:

  1. watched this remarkable 1927 Jean Epstein silent film to learn something about French Impressionism, an avant-garde film movement that developed in France in the 1920s and had great influence on later European cinema.



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