"Copying Beethoven": Fartissimo – Another Grumpy Old Man By Mariangiola Castrovilli

in 54th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Mariangiola Castrovilli

By packaging Beethoven’s figure efficiently for general audiences who have less knowledge about the composer, global citizen Agnieszka Holland delivers an international production that is an enjoyable, if a bit banal, film to cast light on the very last chapter of Beethoven’s life in the Vienna of the 1820s. But don’t expect any of the depth and elemental power of Forman’s Amadeus…

The same old story: boy meets girl, they grow fond of each other as time passes by — do they stay together? In this case, the male part is synonymous with an ageing maestro, while the blossoming young is just as beautiful, naive and adamant as she should be in a period piece á la Hollywood. The two team up on a mission to complete Herr Ludwig’s masterpiece, the 9th Symphony. The affection that they develop towards each other eventually transcends their age-difference. Though not consummated in a carnal sense, they find love, falling for each other’s soul (yes!), that pure, divine inner self. Sounds corny? Sure it does.

Copying Beethoven is probably much less of an obvious misfire than Total Eclipse proved to be in capturing the exuberant spirit of a young poet laureate (let alone the clash of two poetic geniuses). Ed Harris’ slight overacting is still endurable for the movie’s duration, yet Diane Kruger who displays a curious mix of strong-headed determination and uncorrupted naivety seems to be more engaging in her role than the maestro himself.

The greatest dilemma of all ‘genius-biopics’ is whether the director is on the same mental, psychological and creative level as the subject of his film. If he isn’t, then he (or she, for that matter) will approach the towering figure as such, in awe of his divine talents, looking up to him with his camera. That’s exactly what Holland does this time: Beethoven’s figure is impressive and rhapsodic enough, as much a ‘hard man’ as a genius can be. But it’s how most people look at these great talents — with admiration. You would need much more to deliver an intelligent portrayal of a man like Beethoven…

Aspirations for a profound portrayal of Beethoven quickly fall apart when the film opts for a convoluted and historically inaccurate (or to put it mildly: factious) premise: a young Viennese girl, barely in her early twenties, claims co-authorship with the maestro and to some degree is more insightful of his genius than even himself. Such a concept as the basis for a plot at first glance seems something of a laughing stock. But let’s not be male-chauvinistic, like Beethoven’s character in the film who at one point makes fun of the young girl’s own musical composition imitating the sounds of farting to tell how shitty her music is and instead of ‘fortissimo’ calling it ‘fartissimo’ — hence this article’s title.

So we have an untalented girl who can be so touched by great music that she understands it better than its own creator. How can you get away with it as a filmmaker? What a director of Agneszka Holland’s calibre can do at best is to portray Beethoven’s character in a feel-good movie that is captivating enough to make you forget that there are only a few (rather banal) lines towards the end (given into Ed Harris’ mouth) that attempt to explain the great composer’s views on the significance of music and his own relations to God per se.

A well-told storyline more or less escapes the rather obvious traps of falling for kitsch — but don’t be foolish enough to expect a truly revealing and insightful movie from her. Holland practices a hybrid genre that blends romance and a drama which deals with the difficulties of creative work, and of the great mind not capable of fitting into the framework of current society (not that he wants to — he despises everyone).

The fact that the film ends with Beethoven’s failed attempt to create a new language of music (and not finishing off the story with a simply uplifting concert of the 9th Symphony — which a Hollywood director would most probably do), brings further this concept of misunderstood genius, which can be seen as an intelligent choice. But Milos Forman, another Eastern-European, has set up such high standards for intense and complex quasi-biopics of this kind about the nature of genius in the arts, that his 1983 movie remains very much unsurpassable. Copying Beethoven, this highly unlikely tale of two completely different people finding each other through music, though never gets boring, aptly confirm the merits of its multiple Oscar-winner predecessor, Amadeus.

As the Austrian pop star Falco sang in the 80s: ‘Rock me Amadeus’, this Beethoven-picture will barely rock anyone (let alone the geeks of music). But it will certainly please those who are ready to forget that there isn’t much grain of truth in this whole story.