A mournful celebration of life's noble failures, not its empty triumphs

February 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

One of the eternal conflicts in art is between truth and money. I chose money. Still, some chose truth and "Tous les Matins du Monde," a beautiful, mournful French film that opens today at the Charles is about such a man, even as it dramatizes the conflict.

It will remind many American viewers of "Amadeus," as it is structured in flashback as the memoirs of a "famous" court musician. Marin Marais (Gerard Depardieu) is a much honored and beloved, if somewhat bloated hero of the musical world; but, in a bitter dotage, he recalls his apprenticeship to an obscure practitioner, in a tone of self-loathing and regret. For of course, he knows the emptiness of his own "triumph," and the purity of his mentor's "failure."

The time is the 17th century and the place is the French countryside. There, in a drafty cabin, the obscure but obsessed musician Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) practices with the viola da gamba day in and day out, aching to stir from the six-stringed cousin to the guitar a sound so pure it will make the angels weep. When he can't quite get it to go where he wants it to go he . . . adds another string! He lives for nothing else; in fact, he hardly notices anything else.

It helps the movie immensely, I should add, that as an instrument the viol isn't exactly the glockenspiel or the tambourine. It's not just a big violin, it's a ticket to ride the currents of the river Styx itself, a sound that's somehow full of death. Majestic and somber, it has the mournful timber of old whiskey sipped in infinite regret over remembrance of things past.

Anyway, Sainte Colombe (an actual figure so prepossessing that nobody ever dared ask him his first name, and so it is lost to history) plays in memory of his dead wife, and in sloppy obedience to the obsessions of his life, he orders his daughters to learn the instrument too; they almost become a religious cult worshiping the saint of the dead mother on the altar of the instrument. The girls have no lives but serve only as extensions of his own talent. Naturally, he's happy. Naturally, they're sad. Naturally, he doesn't notice.

But the world, as it so often does, is about to come a-calling on the spectacularly dysfunctional Sainte Colombes, in the form of a bright young man in a goofy red outfit, six feet of hormones, talent and ambition. Guillaume Depardieu, with a nose like a fist, plays the young man, so that he can grow up and become the narrator, his father Gerard Depardieu, who also has a nose like a fist.

At any rate, the usual drama of usurpation, sexual politics and betrayal ensues, as the young man, taken on as an apprentice, seduces and impregnates the violist's eldest daughter, while at the same time trying to master the intricacies, the delicacies, the soul of the instrument, all the time acknowledging his own inferiority.

The key issue of course is means and ends. For Sainte Colombe, the purist, the end of music is music. No other sustenance is meaningful; one lives with ascetic purity, trying to achieve the highest plain of feeling and expression without regard to the outside world. For the young Marais, the end of music is . . . bright lights, power, wealth, chicks, the whole rock star/court musician thing. Music is merely a means.

As Sainte Colombe, Marielle is as chilly as a Popsicle; there's no sanctimony about the ugly shape of his talent or the anguish he heaps upon his children. But the movie makes it clear that he's the one with the talent, and if it loathes him, it honors the music.

"Tous les Matins du Monde"

Starring Jean-Pierre Marielle and Gerard Depardieu.

Directed by Alain Corenau.

Released by October Films.



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