Sunday, May 5, 2013

Film Review Sunday: A Late Quartet

If you’ve ever read the storybook Pumpkin Soup, the premise for A Late Quartet will be deliciously familiar to you.

Pumpkin Soup is the story of a duck, a cat and a squirrel who live in perfect harmony in a cabin deep in the woods. Their days are spent making the best pumpkin soup in the world and playing their instruments. Everything is happiness in the old white cabin until Duck announces he doesn’t want to add salt in the soup anymore—a chore he’s been performing with great success for as long as they’ve been together. Now he wants to stir the soup.

Except that stirring the soup is the Squirrel’s job.

The request results in a monumental quarrel between the animals followed by rupture and maybe (even) the loss of friendship. In a similar fashion, violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) upsets his string quartet’s dynamic when he decides he doesn’t want to be second violin anymore, but first. This daring idea comes after elder cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken) announces he’s in the earliest stages of Parkinson’s and must leave the quartet after 25 seasons together. Not only do the quartet members have to navigate the early retirement of their beloved mentor, but also the ego clashes between Robert and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir). Add to the mix the questionable loyalty of Robert’s wife and viola player, Juliette, and their passionate daughter, Alexandra, and you have all the elements of a powerful drama.

The Fugue in its days of glory

Not too different from this trio's happy days

A Late Quartet is woven together with such precision that every bit of dialogue and every gesture contributes to the tension and development of the plot. In this film, there is no need for excessive violence or heinous screams to create conflict. Some of the harshest words are spoken in a whisper. (But not to fear, there are some intense scenes as well!). Perhaps the film’s biggest asset is how real the characters and their relationships feel. It’s almost as though the audience is given a chance to peek into the lives of musicians they would otherwise only see on a stage. In the end, we are presented with everyday people with ordinary feelings but extraordinary talents.

Aside from stellar performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot, I enjoyed the music (the film plays a tribute to Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C-sharp minor) but even more the exploration of human nature and how resilient we are to change. In Spanish there is a saying that goes like this: “Mas vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer.”  I believe the English translation is “Better the Devil you know.” In A Late Quartet, Robert and Peter represent change, whereas Daniel and Juliette stand for the formula that has already worked for them. Even when Robert introduces the concept that if they don’t take risks, they’ll never know how great they can become, the threat of change is so frightening to some of them that the dissolution of the group seems a preferable and imminent option.

Mmm... what could this flamenco dancer have to do with a string quartet?
You'll have to watch the film to know!

A Late Quartet was released in the Fall of 2012 and was only in theaters for a short time, it seems, but don’t let that stop you from watching it! (And if you do, come back and tell me what you think!)

Did you watch this film? Why do you think we're so resistant to change?


  1. This review actually sparks my interest! And you know who your flamenco dancer makes me think of ... :)

    1. Who? Who? Who?

      I'd be very curious to know what you think of it!

  2. I will have to keep an eye out for this film! I love the idea of the harshest words being spoken in a whisper. Understated intensity is cool.

    I expect we're resistant to change because whatever we've been doing (our routine) seems to be keeping us alive, and departing from that routine may mean death. Change is risky. But we are not descended from fearful people, as the saying goes: we can't grow if we don't take risks.

    1. Absolutely! I think that, to an extend, most people are afraid of change (if you're not in college, that is, ha!) but some handle it better than others. I confess I'm in the group of the change-rejectors; whereas my husband gets excited about it. I think that's one of the strengths of this film. We can easily empathize with the character's resistance and fear of change.

  3. I must say that I've never heard of the book Pumpkin Soup or this film, but I'm very interested in both now that you've mentioned them. Do the actors actually play their own instruments in the film or is there some fancy editing that makes it looks like they do? I would love to see Hoffman and Walken playing the violin and cello!

    1. I would offer to lend you Pumpkin Soup but my daughter's version is in Spanish. :-) However, I do have the second part in English (but to me, it wasn't as charming.)

      I don't think the actors are really playing (but they look like they are!) They must have at least taken a basic violin/cello course, because IMO they're very believable as musicians. Let me know if you end up watching it!

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  5. The translation for the phrase you said would be like "It's better a known bad than a good for knowing".

    Excelent movie! and good article!


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