A Late Quartet: The Decay of Composition

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 4:45pm

Last month Philip Seymour Hoffman died at age 46 from a drug overdose. One of the most exciting actors to watch in the past 20 years, he was a rare thespian indeed, one who joined (and surpassed) the ranks of Steve Buscemi, Kevin Spacey and Christoph Waltz as the sole reason to chance an otherwise questionable movie simply because they have a role, no matter how minor.

A self-prescribed death, accidental or not — in Hoffman’s case it was filed as an accident, a “toxic mix” of drugs according to the coroner’s report — portrays a life of crisis, an unpredictable existence that families, friends and fans alike would hope to remedy.

“A Late Quartet” (from 2012) examines lives in crisis — medical, familial, spiritual — and the remedies chosen to alleviate the uncertainty of one day to the next for all involved. The film centers on the renowned Fugue String Quartet, which, in the midst of celebrating 25 years of playing together, receives news devastating to their lives and careers: their cellist and leader, Peter (Christopher Walken in his best dramatic role in over a decade), is experiencing the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

This shocking news sets in motion a number of emotions, ideals and outcomes between the quartet. Ivanir (Daniel Lerner), the lead violinist who finds emotional depth in his obsession for the art, remains stoic. His concern for Peter’s health is sincere but cold when measured against the quartet’s future: he’s prepared to find a suitable outcome, quickly but with utmost care, for the cellist’s soon-to-be-vacant chair.

Robert and Juliette Gelbart (Hoffman and Catherine Keener), the married couple of the quartet, play second violin and viola, respectively. Respective to his position, Robert supports Ivanir’s vision quite literally as the second violinist, but pines for more authority, a lead role in the quartet, believing himself a more emotive vessel for the precise but rote playing of his comrade. Juliette, provider of sense and sensitivity, respects her husband but thinks one replacement is enough — harmony above risk. Hoffman and Keener play beautifully off each other, as they did in “Capote.”
These internal and external conflicts further provide each member with a need to be respected, a need to be heard above the music itself. For each ideal brought forth another is argued and denied.

But where does Peter stand among the decisions? His wise, unwavering voice, his guidance and love for the Fugue, his lifelong friends, the joy of music itself — his very foundation shakes underneath the weight of his own fingers, losing their response as he struggles to find peace with his condition.

One needs no appreciation of classical music or highbrow behavior to appreciate “A Late Quartet.” Director Yaron Zilberman understands an audience’s desire for impact above subject. From the impassioned soundtrack (scored by Angelo Badalamenti) to the truly powerful ensemble, the film transcends its subject to vocalize one that’s more universal: when our worlds are thrown out of balance, what can we do to keep ourselves in order, to keep ourselves determined to move forward?

Like the Fugue, like the instruments of a string-quartet, our very existence hangs on our will to bend, our will to be swept away in harmonious relationships fraught with all the dissonance we’ve come to expect from life. And when the final curtains have drawn, like the final bow of the recently deceased, we give our thanks and remember a life’s legacy that will carry on well past the final performance.

“A Late Quartet” is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.