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Region 2 PAL Guest review:

The Music Teacher

The Music Teacher
C'Est La Vie
1988 / Color / 1:55 flat / 94 min. / Le Maitre de Musique
Starring Jose Van Dam, Anne Roussel, Philippe Volter, Sylvie Fennec, Patrick Bauchau, Johan Leysen, Marc Schreiber, Alain Carre
Cinematography Walther Vanden Ende
Production Designer Zouc Lanc
Art Direction Catherine Frognier
Film Editor Denise Vindevogel
Musical Director Ronald Zollman
Written by Gerard Corbiau and Luc Jabon
Produced by Alexandre Pletser
Directed by Gerard Corbiau

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

A Region 2 PAL disc; will not play on standard American machines.

Top-billed Jose Van Dam is, first and foremost, a world renowned baritone.  Judging by the evidence on display here, he can act as well as sing, acquitting himself quite comfortably in this appealing period drama.  Sylvie Fennec had previously appeared alongside another professional singer, Johnny Hallyday, when she starred in Sergio Corbucci's hippy Spaghetti Western, Gli Specialisti.


The Opera world of early Twentieth Century Europe is shocked when the singer Joachim Dallayrac (Jose Van Dam) unexpectedly announces that he is to retire from the stage.  Rumours concerning his health are soon replaced by speculation about his sanity when he sets up a singing school at a country retreat that boasts just one pupil, the beautiful Sophie (Anne Roussel).  Dallayrac confounds his critics further by rescuing and enrolling a rough and ready street singer-come-pickpocket, Jean (Philippe Volter), during a rare visit to the city.  Dallayrac and his partner/pianist Estelle (Sylvie Fennec) push their two charges hard, determined to forge them into world class performers.  Things go well initially, but romantic tensions between Dallayrac and Sophie threaten to disrupt their progress.  Sensing a chance to finally win a decades old feud, Dallayrac's former singing rival-turned-concert promoter, Prince Scotti (Patrick Bauchau), deliberately brings matters to a head by publicly inviting Sophie and Jean to take part in his renowned singing contest: Dallayrac isn't sure that the pair are completely ready for such an event but turning down Scotti's invitation would effectively end their careers before they have even begun.

There is a particular type of feature that only Europeans seem able to successfully produce. They're kind of at the most accessible end of the art house scale in appearance but boast a significant extra ingredient that is able to prompt a degree of emotional involvement which, in turn, helps them to fully realise their potential for popular appreciation. These films feature suitably appropriate yet impeccable cinematography, seemingly authentic period sets and costumes, great acting and characterization and unusually emotive soundtrack music. All of which magically combine to successfully bring to life seemingly real people and events from other times and places. Emotionally charged situations and encounters, epoch defining events, fantastic friendships and intense love affairs, both often broken or strained by betrayal or simple neglect but still fought and agonized over many years later, etc, are all played out, often via flashbacks, with a gentle hint of melancholia present. This vague but noticeable melancholic evocation immediately suggests that events are moving towards a sad or sentimental finale, further enhancing the need for engagement and involvement with the film's characters. At times these films are leisurely paced affairs but, once you're attuned to their particularly engrossing aesthetics, even the most mundane or drawn-out onscreen activities remain captivating. I'm thinking of titles like Sergio Leone's C'era una volta in America, Giuseppe Tornatore's Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and Michael Radford's Il Postino.

The Music Teacher belongs to the same exclusive club even though, by comparison, it plays at a slightly less intense level. In keeping with its predominantly French origins, this show isn't quite as animated or as overtly sentimental as its predominantly Italian counterparts but its production values and cinematography are very much their equal. And, as with Il Postino, the flashbacks are kept to an absolute minimum: the drama is firmly rooted in a beautifully realised past from the outset and Dallayrac chooses to exorcise his personal demons by focusing on the future, as represented by his young students, as opposed to raking over the past. Dallayrac's personal history does, however, govern much of what unfolds in this tale and relevant parts of it are cleverly played out for us when history appears to repeat itself through the events that befall both Dallayrac and his pupils. A kind of Greek chorus made up of observing Opera critics fills in other details along the way. And while this film doesn't feature the requisite Ennio Morricone or Luis Enriquez Bacalov soundtrack score, in some ways it goes one better: the operatic and classical pieces featured here are the very pieces that have influenced and coloured portions of Morricone's and Bacalov's own output over the years.

There's little doubt that the amazing music of Gustav Mahler, Giuseppe Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacques Offenbach, Giacomo Puccini, Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann adds much to the overall experience here. As do the exhilarating vocal performances by Jose Van Dam and two unseen singers (Dinah Bryant and Jerome Pruett). Anne Roussel, Philippe Volter and Marc Schreiber do an excellent job of miming to Bryant and Pruett's vocal performances. Sophie's stage debut is particularly good, with Roussel managing to successfully emote the young singer's initial feelings of nervousness, which are soon replaced by expressions of joyful exuberance as she hits her stride mid-song. You simply don't have to be an Opera or classical music buff to enjoy and be moved by the material presented here.

So you've got a good idea of where the film's cinematography, soundtrack and emotional ambience are at but a well acted, gentle and graceful tale concerning a group of cosseted and privileged semi-aristocratic types, who spend their days devoted to their music, still doesn't sound particularly exciting? Well, there is a little more to it than that, with no less than three subplots coming into play. The first plays like a mystery. Just what is troubling Dallayrac? Why has he become so world weary and why has he chosen to retire? Why does he wish to be forgotten by his public, refusing newspaper interviews and continually rejecting Francois's (Johan Leysen) requests for him to record a private performance for release on vinyl (a theme that some distributors made use of to loosely link The Music Teacher to Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva)?

The second subplot is a guessing game involving a series of potentially complicated love affairs. Are Dallayrac and the lovely Estelle in love with each other? Estelle certainly loves Dallayrac and she intuitively knows that Dallayrac and Sophie (who is, to all extents, a younger version of Estelle) are bound to fall in love too but she still welcomes the promising young singer into their new home. Does Dallayrac enrol Jean because of the potential of his voice or because he secretly hopes that Sophie will turn her romantic attentions to the younger man instead of himself? But could Sophie ever love a person like Jean? Either way, the introduction of Jean poses its own set of problems and challenges. He professes to steal only when he's hungry but the uncertainty of whether he will return Dallayrac's trust creates some effective tension and suspense. Jean does have a good voice but he's simply not fit enough to project it properly, so Dallayrac pushes him through some strenuous physical exercise routines: the exercise sequences resulted in some distributors loosely linking the film to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky and, strange as it may seem, the idea is not quite as preposterous as it sounds. The film's only concession to the era's poor, Jean sticks around because he despises the social circle that gravitates around the Opera. And while winning Sophie's heart would be a nice bonus, he primarily wants Dallayrac's teachings to put him in a position where the full might of his disdain will eventually be felt by those who he despises (an attitude also secretly held by Dallayrac?).

The third subplot could be lifted straight from a thriller. Seeking revenge for an incident that occurred twenty years earlier, Prince Scotti concocts a scheme intended to taint Dallayrac's reputation by questioning the talents of his two pupils. If Sophie and Jean refuse to enter his competition they are conceding defeat, and possibly forfeiting the right to receive another such invite in the future. But if they do enter, Arcas (Marc Schreiber), Scotti's own talented and ultra-confident protégé, will surely wipe the floor with them. Patrick Bauchau had previously starred in a James Bond film (John Glen's A View to a Kill) and his Prince Scotti character here plays very much like a classic Bond villain. He owns a gothic castle, complete with a sinister man-servant, and he governs Arcas as if he owns him, using threats and intimidation to spur on his performances. And while he plays the perfect host when he welcomes Sophie and Jean into his magnificent home, when they're not present he reveals his true contempt for the pair and their teacher. He goes on to employ underhand tricks in an attempt to upset Sophie and Jean's performances while also attempting to coerce them into revealing Dallayrac's superior teaching techniques. In the end, it all comes down to Arcas and Jean, clad in macabre matching masks and costumes that bring to mind The Phantom of the Opera, fighting out a vocal duel live on stage. But, whatever the outcome of the duel, you don't need me to tell you that a film like this is going to end in tears.

The aspect ratio presented on the DVD is in the region of 1.55:1. The main titles suggest that the film was probably shot with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 but the apparent zoom isn't particularly intrusive. The picture quality itself is a bit of a mixed bag. While being generally free from scratches and suchlike, some of the film's interior shots play just a little dark, and consequently suffer from a touch of graininess, resulting in some of the more deeper colours coming on just a little too strong. Presented in French and featuring English language subtitles, the sound quality is excellent.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Music Teacher rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Four page booklet, Gerard Corbiau filmography, stills gallery, theatrical trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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