Nearly a decade ago film critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times vilified the work of French director Alain Corneau, dismissing it as "lethargic, pretentious, overblown, neopoetic nonsense." Since that review, no American distributor has been daring (or batty) enough to market another of Corneau's movies in this country. His absence was not widely mourned; overwrought potboilers with titles like Police Python .357 formed the core of his oeuvre.
Corneau returns to U.S. theaters riding triumphantly on the back of Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World), an austere seventeenth-century period piece. The film is drawn from Pascal Quignard's novel of the same name, which was, in turn, based on the lives of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, an enigmatic, eremitic French baroque composer and violist, and his famous protege Marin Marais. Both the film and its score of baroque viol compositions are all the rage in France. American distributors' willingness to give Corneau another shot can probably be ascribed to the resulting financial bonanza: two million tickets and more than 200,000 copies of Jordi Savall's soundtrack sold in the country infamous for taking Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke way too seriously.
Reuniting Anne Brochet (as Sainte-Colombe's elder daughter Madeleine) and Gerard Depardieu (as Marais), the leading couple from 1990's magnificent A and profitable A Cyrano de Bergerac, couldn't have hurt the film's chances. Nor could the curiosity value inherent in the acting debut of Depardieu's son, Guillaume, who has captured the French fancy with his sultry portrayal of Marais as a headstrong young man. Despite the presence of such illustrious company, the film belongs to Jean-Pierre Marielle as Sainte-Colombe, a penetrating performance made all the more extraordinary by the fact that he is best known in his native France as a stand-up comic with a baguette and a beret.
Marielle hits nary a false note as the stern, ascetic composer who, in the words of narrator Marais, "sold his horse and withdrew into his music" upon the untimely death of his beloved young wife. Grief-stricken, Sainte-Colombe retreats to the shadows and sanctity of a small cabin in the garden of his estate, where he devotes himself to his playing, in the process neglecting his two affection-starved young daughters, Madeleine and Toinette (Carole Richert).
Never big on small talk, Sainte-Colombe prefers to let his viol speak for him, eventually tutoring his daughters in the finer points of the instrument as well. Together the family stages annual performances, and word of their virtuosity spreads. In short order, Sainte-Colombe is summoned to Versailles and the court of King Louis XIV, a summons the contemptuous composer vehemently rejects. He will have none of the aristocracy's pomp and pretense, regardless of how many times they petition him.
Equally vehement is his initial rejection of Marin Marais, a brilliant player and would-be apprentice who has rapidly surpassed his previous mentors. Sainte-Colombe questions Marais's heart, and relents only at the entreaty of his daughters, particularly Madeleine, whose budding libido pulses with tremors at first sight of the strapping newcomer.
The master endures his new pupil with scarcely concealed disdain, at one point berating the student's superficial facility with the epithet, "You make music, but you are not a musician." Sainte-Colombe not only doesn't suffer fools gladly, he doesn't much care for geniuses, either; his eyes coruscate with rage, and his sparingly used voice crackles with nuance and intensity.
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Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe finally loses patience with Marais's perceived callowness and banishes the young man from his house. Madeleine, who has found sex more to her liking than the viol, begins surreptitiously abetting Marais in affairs both carnal and musical while the monsieur obliviously pursues his obsession. The couple go so far as to crawl beneath Sainte-Colombe's cabin, literally right under his nose, so that Marais might partake of Madeleine's charms while he makes mental notes of her father's musical subtleties.
Eventually, as the aging father predicted from the outset, Marais's ambition gets the better of him and he moves on, betraying both his former mentor and his lover in order to assume the glamorous position at the king's court that Sainte-Colombe had rejected. Madeleine loses the lout's baby during birth and slips into a melancholy funk; soon the old man has so much grief to deal with that even the music cannot console him. Years pass and Marais, now sublimely portrayed by the elder Depardieu as a fat, dissipated dandy, has a final, excruciating rendezvous with his ex-lover that leads to an impassioned effort to learn the secrets of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe's art and to earn the master's approval.
If it all sounds deadly somber and unrelentingly elegiac, it is. And Corneau's direction offers no relief. He meticulously composes every shot like a Vermeer painting, and it seems as if the camera never moves. In the hands of lesser actors and cinematographers, it could have turned into a crashing bore. In fact, even with the solid work of Brochet and the Depardieus, and the bravura turn by Marielle, Tous les matins du monde occasionally seems less like a motion picture and more like a gorgeous slide show with rueful, baroque background music. Given the subtitles and the paucity of dialogue, one cannot help but wonder how such a venture will fare in the age of MTV attention spans.
Then again, perhaps that's the key to the film's puzzling hold on the French imagination. It is so different, so inexorably fastidious and defiantly anachronistic as to be downright revolutionary. Corneau has directed a film every bit as intractable and uncompromising as the tortured, despairing composer at its center.