Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Claude Miller. Written by Miller and luc Beraud, based on the novel by Nina Berberova. Photography, Yves Angelo. Music, Alain Jomy. Editing, Albert Jurgenson. Cast: Romane Bohringer, Elena Safonova, Richard Bohringer, Samuel Labarthe, Julien Rassam, Nelly Borgeaud, Claude Rich, et al. A Sony Classics release. 110 minutes. In French with subtitles. Rated PG.

Nazi-occupied Paris. Glamorous soprano Irene Brice (Leningrad-born, ex-Russian actress Elena Safonova) hires an accompanist. She is 20-year old Sophie (Romane Bohringer) a talented pianist who, like many French people in the winter of 1942-43, is undernourished.

Unlike many in German-dominated France, Irene and her businessman-profiteer husband Charles (Richard Bohringer, in real life Romane's father) live in luxury. Irene laughingly admits that she is isolated from "rigors and privations." The Brices hobnob with the rich and the infamous and, marginally, with the German authorities. Marginally because Charles, though an opportunist, unlike many other Frenchmen is no true collaborationist but a complex man who does a balancing act between his conscience and his self-interest. He even taunts the Germans.

Irene, a charmer, is blithely unaware of anything except music, adulation, joie de vivre and her lover Jacques. Yet she's no air head. Solemn Sophie is fairly complex. She moves in with the couple, shares some of their privileges, quietly observes their private and public lives. Her new condition does not change her much. What does affect her is her ambivalence toward Irene : a mixture of admiration and silent disapproval, and an understandable, professional frustration at staying in Irene's musical shadow. Even though she is appreciated by Irene and the public, the young pianist always remains an anonymous second fiddle to the singer. It does not help either that, in a friendly way, Irene also treats Sophie a bit like a favorite servant. And neither woman opens up to the other.

As Charles becomes increasingly conscious of reaching a kind of point of no return -- moral as well as practical-- he decides to escape from France with his wife. Taking Sophie along, they go South, cross the Pyrenees, reach Lisbon and take a freighter to England.  There, the entrepreneurial Charles successfully becomes his wife's impresario -- but there is a problem: Jacques, the lover and a member of the French Underground is also in London...

The film starts out as a series of portraits and adds vivid components of life, society and dealings under the Occupation. It eventually becomes something of a saga and a melodrama, but both are played down. There is a delicate, constant balance among the three main characters. Stresses vary without becoming systematic. Although Charles may have less screen time than the women, his role keeps growing in importance and depth. It is Charles who touches you most, yet the film does not resort to simplifications, moral judgments, villains or heroes.

I said "three characters." I really meant four, the fourth one being the music. There is for me something most appealing in the way so many French films since 1960 incorporate classical music, use it organically, and often make it the key element. Think of "Diva, " "The Music Teacher," "Tous les Matins du Monde." It is a far cry from Hollywood's stubborn resistance to "serious" music, and, in quality and variety, also a far cry from the made-to-order compositions in "The Piano," an excellent film but with a jarringly anachronistic score.

Strongly and intelligently woven into the story, the mostly vocal music of "The Accompanist" ( Mozart, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Schubert, Berlioz, etc.) is not limited to snippets. Beautifully dubbed by young soprano Laurence Monteyrol, it is superbly lip-face-and-body-synched by Ms. Safonova.

The film reproduces its period with great accuracy, captures perfectly in look and content facts, situations, politics and moods of Occupied France and of Marshall Petain's Vichy Government. Vichy itself, the provincial spa that became the bizarre seat of the pro-German French State ( France's Non-Occupied Zone), comes in for some deft descriptions.

Among the best touches is a cameo by Claude Rich as a realistic, disenchanted Vichy Minister who lends a sympathetic ear to Charles' determination to escape. References to Petain, Laval, Brinon, Otto Abetz, Doriot, the Free French, De Gaulle and the like add much to the ambiance if you know this particular chapter in history.

There are many subtleties, such as color differences between the French sequences and those of wartime London, the latter, says director Miller, shot "with deep reds and blacks, like old Rank films. " And there is at least one conceit, included, no doubt, for the delectation of movie specialists: Charles, near the end, tells his wife: "I hate the character that you are making me play." This is almost word for word what another Charles, actor Charles Boyer, said to his wife in Max Ophuls' 1953 gem "The Earrings of Madame de..."

I tip my hat to a movie that does not try to simplify people, issues and facts, and works in music so effectively. Even if viewers do not identify every historical detail, the film is not at all hard to follow. My only puzzlement is why Jacques always sports a heavy five o'clock shadow,

Claude Miller is, among other things, a director of faces who has been influenced by Ingmar Bergman. Here he makes eloquent use of close-ups of faces and eyes. The late Francois Truffaut, who also did much along those lines, and with whom Miller worked on seven films,would have been pleased.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel