(director/writer: Alain Corneau; screenwriter: Pascal Quignard/based on Quignard’s novel; cinematographer: Yves Angelo; editor: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte; music: arranged and performed by Jordi Savall; cast: Jean-Pierre Marielle (Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe), Gérard Depardieu (old Marin Marais), Anne Brochet (Madeleine), Guillaume Depardieu (young Marin Marais), Carole Richert (Toinette), Michel Bouquet (Lubin Baugin), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Abbé Mathieu), Yves Gasc (Lequieu), Yves Lambrecht (Charbonnières), Jean-Marie Poirier (de Bures), Myriam Boyer (Guignotte), Violaine Lacroix (young Madeleine), Nadège Teron (young Toinette), Caroline Sihol (Mme de Sainte-Colombe), voices of Philippe Duclos (Brunet), Yves Gourvil (Lequieu); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jean-Louis Livi; October Films; 1991-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Delicious baroque treat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alain Corneau (“Some Kind of Blue”/”Cousin, Le”/”New World”) directs and co-writes the film with essayist Pascal Quignard, on whose novel this delicious baroque treat is based. It’s about a mysterious and ornery 17th century French master of the viola da gamba (predecessor of the cello) and his flawed protégé Marin Marais (Gérard Depardieu), who didn’t learn how to overcome the spiritual emptiness of his music until old age and sold out his art for the lure of fame and fortune as the court composer at Versailles. The high concept art film lets its music do the communicating, and that effectively covers the central theme that music, drawn from the silence of the heart and mind, must be felt since it says what cannot be said. The astonishing music was arranged and performed by Jordi Savall (a virtuoso of the old-fashioned viol), and the popular and acclaimed film (did well in the César Awards) revitalized a baroque craze in France.

It opens as the aged and bloated Marin Marais (Gérard Depardieu), appearing dressed in fine threads and a wig, is the master teacher at Versailles rehearsing the court musicians to play one of his compositions and berating them for drily playing and not feeling the music. The flashback of Marin’s begins with viol player Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) saddened that he’s absent when his beloved young wife (Caroline Sihol) dies, as he’s playing for a dying patron. Guilt-ridden that he wasn’t there for her, the dour artiste becomes reclusive in his modest country estate raising his young daughters, Madeleine (Anne Brochet) and the younger one Toinette (Carole Richert), in a confused way as he forgets everything as he withdraws into his music. He composes for his wife the “Tomb of Sorrows,” which he only plays for the girls. When he turns down an invite to be hired at Versailles, he finds he can no longer get bookings to do his once popular country chamber concerts with his daughters. Colombe reluctantly takes on one pupil, the shoemaker’s ambitious son Marin Marais (Guillaume Depardieu, Gerard’s son). But thinks little of him as a musician, but more like a talented performer who pleases the crowds but never feels anything about his music. Marin is given the boot by the stern Sainte Colombe, and returns only to knockup Madeleine and marry another. Their child dies at birth, and as time marches on the aging Madeleine has the life sucked out of her over this unforgettable failed romance and will commit suicide while the aged Marin performs in the next room a composition he dedicated to her as a youth. Eventually Marin changes his tune and returns to see Sainte Colombe, and learns the compositions the master created so that they would not be lost to the world.

Even musicologists don’t know Sainte Colombe’s first name, when he died or when he was born–or for that matter much else about him. But they do know his disciple was Marais. This melodramatic interpretation obviously fictionalizes his story; it has the master haunted by memories of his wife and using his memories of her as a muse. In real life Marais had easily surpassed the talents of Sainte Colombe. But whatever loose ends there are to the legend, the film worked for me because the music was beautiful and the story was stately related with sparse dialogue and well-acted; this unusual costume drama never became stodgy enough to ruin all the good things it had going for it.