The Concert film review

(This film review appeared in the May 6, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.  Also note the link to my video review of “The Concert” below).

Directed and written by Radu Mihaileanu

Starring Aleksei Guskov, Melanie Laurent, Dimitri Nazarov, Valeri Barinov and Miou Miou 

Romanian-French Jewish film director Radu Mihaileanu specialises in fable-like stories with major Jewish themes.  His 1998 film Train de Vie (Train of Life) portrayed a Jewish village in Poland that organised to escape the Nazis by taking over a train and shipping themselves (with the best German speakers playing German soldiers) to Palestine.  Although Life is Beautiful gained the awards and international recognition, it was Mihaileanu who first used fantasy as escape from the Holocaust.  His last film, Live and Become, was about an Ethiopian Christian boy who pretends he is Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel during “Operation Moses” in 1984.

Mihaileanu’s current film The Concert uses the same theme of pretence and identity switch, this time set in the present day.  The film opens on a Russian symphonic conductor, Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), blissfully conducting a rehearsal in a major concert hall.  But all is not as it seems, as the camera pulls back and we realise that Filipov is only pretending to conduct from the balcony seats, and is in fact a cleaner, a disgraced former conductor of the “Bolshoi Orchestra” who lost his job three decades earlier during the Brezhnev era for refusing to fire Jewish musicians.

When Filipov intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to give a concert at the famed Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, he rashly decides to bring his old group of musicians together and do it himself.  But this is no simple task:  he needs to find, convince and organise his widely spread group of misfits – mostly Jews with a few gypsies thrown in for good measure – to make their way to Paris.  Against the vehement protestations of his Jewish cellist Sacha Grossman (Dimitri Nazarov), he enlists a die-hard former Communist Party official, Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) as the tour’s negotiator and manager.

Part of Filipov’s plan is to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, and to enlist young French violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent, from Inglorious Basterds) – who he secretly adores from afar – as the soloist.  But the difficult Jacquet is shielded by her manager and guardian (played by classic French actress and the wonderfully named Miou-Miou), and clearly there is more to the Jacquet-Filipov story than is first apparent.

This delicate and highly entertaining film makes clever and often hilarious points about modern entrepreneurial Russia (the Russian musicians all immediately race out to try to make money when they arrive in Paris), French artistic pretensions, and the clash of cultures between new and old Russia (the ex-Communist leader Gavrilov still holds illusions as to how the French masses will unite behind him) and Russia and the West.  The Russians all speak a delightfully fractured French, which apparently charmed the French audiences when it opened there late last year (a passing knowledge of French definitely helps to understand the humour).  The Concert opened at number one in France, and achieved almost two million admissions, making it one of the most popular French films of 2009 – and where it was also nominated for best film, director, script and editing in the French “Cesar” awards (and won for best music and sound).

The Concert is about making music and finding your dream.  But it is also about the modern Jewish condition, because the background theme to the whole film is the anti-Jewish actions of Communist Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s.  The film has Mihaileanu’s characteristic combination of broad comedy and touching personal identity search, this time blended with Gallic philosophising and amusing Russian consumerism.  I found the mixture to be both moving and delightful.

Watch the video review here:

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