Vague Visages’ Music review contains minor spoilers. Angela Schanelec’s 2023 movie features Aliocha Schneider, Agathe Bonitzer and Marisha Triantafyllidou. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The maxim “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and many others) may well have been prophetically intended for Angela Schanelec’s Music — a collection of images and ideas that feel less perceptible but whose power does not lessen at all.
Music is slow-going, methodical and brooding. It is intentionally obtuse and opaque. The synopsis tagged to the film in its festival run references the Greek myth of Oedipus, the king who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. After realizing his mistake, Oedipus’ mother kills herself and he gouges out his eyes. I am no expert on classical Greek literature but genuinely cannot draw that connection to what transpires in Music.
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Music takes on something softer, stranger and harder to parse. The mystery is the point, the ambiguity enrichening itself. This type of dreamlike slow cinema is obviously high risk, and requires a supreme sense of confidence in one’s ability to conjure up meaningful images. As a point of comparison, one other slow cinema work at this year’s LFF — Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell by Vietnamese director Thien An Pham — spends its 182-minute runtime outlining its protagonist’s spiritual crisis, but by the end has repeated this central conflict so often that it annihilates all ambiguity, a journey that’s all the more painful when your film is three hours long. But Music’s images are fluid, moulded together with some strange connective tissue. Poetic is an overused descriptor in film criticism, but it applies here — these images seem to rhyme and make emotional sense in a way that confounds rational logic.
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And just like Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, the protagonists of Music (there are multiple, as Schanelec picks up one perspective before moving onto another) all seem to be going through some kind of spiritual crisis themselves, but the tone of these crises is far more uncertain. A spate of suicides and violent incidents mark the film (fatuously, I’d call it an arthouse Bird Box, which might explain what thin plot there is better than a vague reference to Oedipus), all brought on, it seems, by an overbearing sense of crisis within modernity.
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Music’s protagonists, many of them young attractive adults in their 20s, are continually undergoing moments of doubt, perhaps akin to the omnipresent doubt that infects both millennials and Gen-Z. Is it a generational sense of a lack of direction? Is it the implicit oncoming climate breakdown? The protagonists all generally seem to live decent lives, holidaying in Greece and hopping back to Berlin, a freedom of movement and financial means previously not afforded to many of their ancestors. But Schanelec is a little too smart to make this an obvious climate change metaphor, though weather plays a part, with dark clouds shrouding the bucolic sunshine more often associated with the Greek coast.
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Maybe the answer lies in Music’s occasional nods that direct viewers back towards reality. A blaring soccer commentary on a television places the movie in 2006, during Italy’s legendary semi-final win over Germany in the World Cup of that year. For Italy, who went on to win, that was a tournament defined by suffering. The country’s major clubs went into the tournament looking at a corruption scandal (Calciopoli) which would ultimately see Juventus relegated and other clubs given a points penalty. The Italian national team of that year was a gritty, tactically-flexible squad who conceded just two goals in the entire competition (a penalty to Zidane and an own-goal), scraping to victory in some gargantuan, exhausting clashes enlivened by moments of inspiration and brilliance. Just beforehand in Music, Schanelec spends time in a hospital, with the figures suffering from some kind of blistering feet pain, and they’re wearing cothurnus (platform-style shoes used in ancient Greek theatre). Physical pain is part of this world, unextractable from its comforts and moments of levity.
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And yet, even this direction towards a fixed temporal reality in Music is stripped away from the audience. Iro (Agathe Bonitzer), one of the protagonists, makes a phone call and learns that her friend passed away six years prior. This in turn leads to an existential crisis for the female character, which in turn affects her partner, Jon (Aliocha Schneider), whose singing is perhaps the “music” from which the film’s title arises, as she records a number of flowery, melismatic folk songs. There’s something about how suffering, trauma and creativity are in a sense linked. I’m no fan of directly conflating suffering with inspiration; the suffering artist trope is played out and generally doesn’t hold up to factual analysis. But lived experience, which entails the good and the bad, the peaks and the troughs, does water the fertile soil on which artistic creativity is built, and perhaps Music is an attempt to try and capture this process on film.
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The overall effect is quite incredible. Over the years, Schanelec has earned a reputation as a festival darling — the sort of high-class auteur whose films don’t make much of an impact beyond the rarefied air and exclusivist space of the film festival, surrounded by people stroking chins in deep thought (a space it’s always worth being wary of, even if it’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). This kind of film festival filmmaking may be aimed at a specific, niche audience, with the requisite small budget to match it. Schanelec may rightfully protest that her working attitude is primarily as an artist, but her films are rarely going to portend beyond this niche, and thankfully, it’s a niche that hits this writer in a sweet spot.
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In less confident hands, the fixed “mise-en-camera” nature of Schanelec’s filming would represent the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel of the modern European arthouse aesthetic, a world of small problems and bourgeois lifestyles. But the rhythms in Music — the shift from one image to the next — make sense in ways that defy obvious explanation, much like the film itself.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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