A LATE QUARTET, a film for M. Cottard


A sequence from A Late Quartet (2012). About 5 minutes in, Walken is teaching a group of string players, signalling to us that we’re in a movie–film, sorry–for sophisticates by reciting the best-known snippet from Eliot’s Four Quartets (“Time present” blah blah blah).

I’m reminded of this well-known (?) comment about Donna Tartt’s Answering Machine, which features the voice of the Very Man Himself reciting ‘The Waste Land’:

 There are a lot of former English majors out there, and Tartt is being served to them as a reminder of the good old days when they, too, sat around and read the Norton Anthology. She is the embodiment of the post-collegian’s intellectual fantasy.

Walken, playing the perfect professor, then pivots into talking about Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, and how it’s played through continuously, without a pause, so that the quartet gradually goes out of tune (foreshadowing!). “It’s a mess!”

Then a cut to Imogen Poots, chuckling, to mime for us the appropriate response to the joke. Not hearty laughter, but rather a sophisticated, gentle chuckle, one suitable to be shared between friends of Ludwig.

Visual equivalent of a laugh track, and just as annoying.

Now, of course, film editing often trains audience in proper affect. That’s old news. But A Last Quartet simply doesn’t trust its audience to have the right affect. It expects an audience that wants to see a movie about a string quartet and a cluster of well-connected, rich, famous New Yorkers, and it lets them believe it’s serious by building a story about collapsing marriages and collapsing health.

Fine. But it doesn’t tell us anything about music; the same story, with the same sequence of shots, could just as well have been told about a quartet of pickle artisans (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Furthermore, the film doesn’t actually expect its audience to know anything about New York, sophisticates, or Beethoven. It expects, instead, an audience that wants to be seen as knowing New York, etc. In sum, the film expects a pretentious audience, and its edits meet that audience exactly, by telling them exactly what they should think.

It expects its audience to be like Proust’s Dr Cottard, who, you’ll recall,

ne savait jamais d’une façon certaine de quel ton il devait répondre à quelqu’un, si son interlocuteur voulait rire ou était sérieux. Et à tout hasard il ajoutait à toutes ses expressions de physionomie l’offre d’un sourire conditionnel et provisoire dont la finesse expectante le disculperait du reproche de naïveté, si le propos qu’on lui avait tenu se trouvait avoir été facétieux.