The movie “A Late Quartet” (released in Australia as “Performance” to avoid confusion with Dustin Hoffman’s film called “Quartet” currently showing here; and to create confusion with the 1968 film also called “Performance” starring Mick Jagger) opened this week and I saw it last night. On leaving the theatre, I fell into conversation with another member of the audience who said: “I didn’t know Americans could make films like that.” A few days earlier I’d seen a European film called “Barbara” which was subtle and nuanced and very similar in tone to “A Late Quartet” but on that occasion, I did not meet anyone who said: I didn’t know Europeans could make films like that.
I don’t think “A Late Quartet” is ground-breaking cinema. But it is such a joy when all the elements of a film come together to create an unambiguous artistic message. The structure of the film is based on the form of a string quartet in which each of the main characters has a story and these stories weave in and around and through each other creating complex changing patterns of harmonies and dissonances that generate the emotional tone of the story. But one doesn’t need to be a musician or a musicologist to enjoy the film; although those who have at least attempted to express themselves creatively in some medium, not necessarily music, will find it easier to empathise with some of the more arcane struggles of the characters.
As a member of the audience, I found that I had to listen very closely to the dialogue to appreciate the changing subtleties of the relationships between the characters. In fact, I found it best not to “attack” the film, searching for meaning, but rather to sit back and allow the story to seep into me. There’s always plenty of time for analysis once the final credits have stopped rolling. And I found this to be one of those films that sends its audience off with homework to do by not always answering the questions it raises.
I do know that Americans can make films like this. What remains to be answered is whether they will turn out in droves to watch them.