Music school. Audition for new pupils. A number of kids come and play their piece with verve but no great talent. They are asked to leave the room and wait for an assessment. The next kid, Alexander, steps up. He is soft-spoken, hesitant. But when he plays his violin you can hear that he’s a cut above the people who preceded him.
The teachers sitting in the audience aren’t so sure. He doesn’t look right. His lack of confidence will hold him back. He’s not really the sort of kid they want at their school. But one of the teachers, Anna, is insistent. She sees potential in him and offers to teach him up the next audition, which could guarantee him a career in music. Alexander is accepted on a casting vote.
Anna is a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. When she goes to a restaurant, she has to change tables several times before she feels content. She repeatedly changes her order, and ends up eating what her husband ordered. For this role, there are few better actresses than Nina Hoss, whose facial gestures alone show the quiet desperation of a woman struggling to cope.
Anna’s life is unravelling. Her husband, Philippe, looks old enough to be her father, which may be a nod to the issues she has with her real dad, a cruel man, for whom nothing is good enough. And yet she seems to be repeating his parenting errors. Her son, Jonas, is also reluctantly learning the violin, but his heart isn’t in it, and he’d be rather playing ice hockey. He is also obviously jealous of the amount of time she’s spending with her star pupil.
Anna tries to deal with her frustrations in two ways. First she had an affair with someone at work, who tries to encourage her to join a string quintet, although she has a fear of performing and seems worried that her glory days are already behind her. Then there are the lessons with Alexander, which get increasingly intense. The number of practise hours are doubled but Anna seems unable to get him to play how she wants him to.
Now here’s the problem. A great musician or athlete has an elegance and grace that makes their performance look effortless. But this apparent ease is only possible through hours of doing the same thing over and over again until they get it right. This film is not about the final, compelling, performance, but about the repetitive procedure that got you there. This is something that is difficult to portray without being, well, a little bit boring.
It is to my shame that I still haven’t seen JK Simmons’s film “Whiplash” but from all I’ve heard, it manages to insert a great deal of excitement into this strive for perfection. What we get here is Alexander playing the same 10 second piece over and over again while Anna tells him to be more lively, or faster, or even just better. This may be many things, but it really isn’t exciting.
This would not have been too much of an issue if we felt any real emotion for the characters. Nina Hoss is a great actress, who manages to portray he character’s distress with just a few glances, but she isn’t really able to make us feel much empathy for her. That’s not really her fault – she can only say the words in the script – but there is nothing about Anna that induces strong feelings – good or bad – about her.
Similarly, the initial appearance of Alexander as a timid boy with lots of raw natural talent makes him seem as if he might get interesting. Yet he never has any real character development. At one stage he can’t take any more of Anna’s bullying, hits her with his bow and storms out, but that’s about it. You never get any real feeling of a three-dimensional character.
The same goes for Anna’s two love interests – he meek husband, who seems content to make instruments, and the new lover, who shows no great sense of being interesting (or anything else really). There is no feeling of jeopardy in Anna’s affair – which man should she choose, or should she keep both on the go? You don’t really care as they are equally bland.
There are other issues which look like possible springboards for more interesting discussions, but remain resolutely unsprung. Philippe is presumably French, and the family speak a mixture of French and German with each other at home. Yet nothing is done with this. Now, in a film with more going on that wouldn’t be a big problem, but you just end up wondering why the film chose to show a multi-national family and then give it such non-eventful lives.
None of this prevents Hoss from giving a great performance. She was the main reason I went to see the film and she doesn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, nearly everything around her does. There are countless scenes of her using slight facial gestures to convey that she’s not really content with where she’s landed. Maybe that wasn’t great acting at all, she was just emoting what some of the rest of us were also feeling.