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“Music” reviewed

Very little is easy to decipher in German filmmaker Angela Schanelec’s Music. With minimal dialogue, languid static shots and unexpected timeline jumps (all staples of Schanelec’s previous output), the film is an onerous exercise in patience and intellectual rigor. Those unfamiliar with the director’s penchant for narrative opacity might find Music falling on deaf ears. For those up for the challenge, there are splendid moments of visual poise to soak in, but little to actually take away in terms of tangible storytelling.

Music acts as a (very) loose retelling of Sophoclese’s seminal tragedy Oedipus Rex, though Schanelec doesn’t overtly address the original tale’s question of fate versus free will. In fact, it takes quite some time to parse the parallels between Music and Oedipus Rex, but when the film’s sparse narrative is plainly recounted, it’s easy to make the connection. It opens with thick fog and thunderclaps amid a Greek mountaintop—recalling the ire of Gods residing on Olympus—before focusing on a baby found in a stone hut on the side of a road. He is taken in by a kindly couple, who bathe the baby’s red, swollen feet in the sea. Seamlessly shifting to decades later, the baby grows into a young man named Jon (Aliocha Schneider), whose feet are still bruised and battered. During a seaside excursion with friends, he commits manslaughter and is sentenced to a year in prison. Behind bars he meets Iro (Agathe Bonitzer), a striking female prison guard. The two soon develop a bond, and another timelapse finds them married with a child.

Of course, Iro eventually discovers the twisted truth about her husband’s ancestry—including his previously unknown relationship to the man he accidentally killed—and she cannot cope. Yet Music is by no means a beat-for-beat retelling of Sophoclese’s drama, even giving Jon an oddly optimistic ending. As the film’s title suggests, he navigates personal strife through music, namely classical baroque composers and then, during the film’s last act, soft rock. Jon’s proclivity for either genre is never really explained (though the former was certainly inspired by Iro’s recommendation while Jon was still incarcerated), though Schanelec has stated that discovering fringe Canadian singer-songwriter Doug Tielli is what led to the musical motif in the film’s final third, which finds Jon and his daughter living in Berlin as he composes music. Frankly, Schneider’s saccharine falsetto lends itself to opera far more than contemporary English-language indie sensibilities, making the film’s sonic intrigue end on a somewhat uneven note.

Yet for a film seemingly predicated on song, the audience doesn’t hear any actual music until 30 minutes in. The resulting sequence is incredibly compelling, with Vivaldi’s “Filiae Maestae Jerusalem” playing for five entire minutes while inmates shower, guards play table tennis and we flash-forward once again to see Jon and Iro teaching a class of children with their own baby resting in a carriage nearby. Immediately after, Schanelec provides a scene where Jon finally sings another Vivaldi, this time “Vedrò Con Mio Diletto.” It’s another half hour until we hear another song, when Jon and Iro’s now 14-year-old daughter croons the French love song “Plaisir d’amour.” Three more songs pad out the last 20-or-so minutes, making the German-set back half the most lyrically engaging of the entire film, even if these performances aren’t as stirring as those set in Greece. But one lyric sung by Jon in a Tielli-penned song effectively calls back to the Oedipal nature of the story: “Why open my eye if not to see?”

Indeed, Schanelec is likely more interested in exploring the theatrical origins of the ancient source material rather than devoting her attention to the film’s soundscape. The static position of cinematographer Ivan Marković’s camera acts as a stage, with characters moving (and action occurring) both in and outside of the frame. The prisoners also don cothurnes, a platform shoe often utilized in classical Greek productions, as part of their uniform. Considering Schanelec’s origins as a theater actress, it makes sense for her to direct actors this way. Emphasis is often on body parts, with the gentle movement of hands and feet a recurring focus. Altering performers’ gait and stature with traditional costumes is a similarly interesting touch, which also heightens Jon’s statuesque qualities (the actor possesses a marble visage, complete with stark cheekbones and broad shoulders). However, this version of Oedipus could never thrive in a theater, as the unhurried gaze and meticulous composition inherent to the Berlin School of filmmaking would never translate on stage.

Many will find Music to be too impenetrable to definitively enjoy, but some may relish in its outright dismissal of conventional narrative tenets. While certain unresolved aspects of the film are downright puzzling—such as the lack of an age gap between Jon and his birth parents, why French actors were hired to perform in fluent Greek or the significance of our protagonist being spared the knowledge of his patricide and incest—the filmmaker clearly finds the lacuna in this story highly compelling. “Omission is a prerequisite of narration,” Schanelec says in the film’s press notes. “Everything follows from omission: the locations I can go to, the time I can let pass.” Indeed, by forgoing explanation, the viewer has no choice but to contemplate the director’s esoteric intent amid extended shots of landscapes, bodies and man-made disasters. There are far worse ways to engage with the passage of time, both quick and sluggish in its eternal march.