11 September 2011

All the Mornings of the World

The French term for “still life” is nature morte — “dead nature.” Corneau’s film claims that this painting, by Lubin Baugin, represents the mystery of Sainte-Colombe’s communion with his late wife.

Last night I watched Alain Corneau’s Tous les matins du monde for perhaps the first time since its initial release, 20 years ago. It is a densely packed, enveloping film, as much about silence as it is about music, as much about death and decay as it is about love and betrayal. The film’s climax comes as the protagonists, an elderly composer and his former student, now a dissolute courtier, try to communicate with each other. Music says those things we cannot say with language, the old man explains, and the younger man begins to propose a number of circumstances in which we need music.

This discussion hit a nerve, because for the past several day I have been trying to put my thoughts into good order, as we drew closer to the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. The little I can say about it, I have said already. Nothing I wrote then has changed since.

Anne Brochet, as Madeleine de Sainte-Colombe,
with Guillaume Depardieu, as Marin Marais.

Beyond that? We thought the world would change — for the better — but it really hasn’t much, except in the way that anything changes, a decade on. Yes, New Yorkers have shown one another exemplary courtesy in some of the upsets that followed (most recently, Hurricane Irene), but the city, never easy, has grown only harder and less welcoming in the years since, as I have discovered in trying to move back here. They love you in this town if you’re a tourist or a millionaire. But for the rest of us — well, who wants to write about that, or to dwell on it?

What has changed for me is my attitude toward music. Two performances especially got me through the days that followed September 11: Karina Gauvin’s hair-raising, ultimately cathartic reading of Haydn’s Mass in a Time of Fear,* with Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy; and Leontyne Price’s concentration, in two simple songs at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, of all the anger, defiance, pride, pain, and love we’d been feeling. Is it a wonder that, ever since, I have sought out more and more not only the art but also the company of musicians?

I was there.

But what, exactly, has music given me in return for my renewing devotions? I can’t quite put it into words — any more than the musicians can, in Tous les matins du monde.

In that scene, the younger man tries to put into words what music does and why it’s needed. His initial answers are glib, and the old man grows frustrated, until he’s barely able to get out the word “Non” in reply. Then the younger man tries again, more simply and sincerely, and the older man is mollified. They end by making peace with each other.

Guillaume Depardieu as the young Marin Marais.

The scene is rife with paradox, starting with the fact that this is the first time in the entire movie in which both men attempt to communicate with each other by speaking: not by action and not by playing music. And yet their conversation, high-minded and wise though it may seem, is doomed, for it raises a question that cannot be answered in words.**

Gérard Depardieu plays the younger man, Marin Marais. (In earlier scenes, Depardieu’s son Guillaume plays him.) The older man is Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, about whom almost nothing is known, and he is played by Jean-Pierre Marielle. Both composers were relatively obscure before the movie came out, but thereupon both enjoyed a resurgence of interest. The movie has already warned us that music has the power to bring back the dead, as Sainte-Colombe’s playing summons his late wife to his side in several scenes.

Marielle as Sainte-Colombe.

But does music bring the dead to life again? No. Music brings us closer to God, perhaps, but it doesn’t make us God. Music gave me the strength to endure 9/11, but it didn’t give me — or Leontyne Price, or Karina Gauvin — or any of my friends — the power to undo it.

I am left with nothing better than to repeat the old saying that gives the source novel*** of Corneau’s film its title: Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour — each day dawns but once.

Each day, including this one.

Marielle, as Sainte-Colombe, evokes the spirit of his beloved wife.
Jordi Savall plays on the soundtrack.

*NOTE: The Haydn work had been programmed as part of a Québecois cultural festival and announced well before the attacks on 9/11. With a kind of courage we may not remember clearly, the Canadian musicians agreed to come to New York later in the month, exactly as scheduled, despite the risks.

**My friend Fred Plotkin, on his blog for WQXR Radio, must have been operating on the same wavelength, or harmonizing with me spiritually. His recent entry considers the relationship between the unspeakable sorrows of 9/11 and the wordless power of music.

***The novel is by Pascal Quignard.

1 comment:

Judy said...

An elegant and interesting post, thank you.
It makes me too want to see that film again. The actor who played St Colombe was superbly austere.