Radu Mihaileanu has set himself an increasingly difficult task. The 52-year-old filmmaker has made several feature films that rotate around an odd conjunction of fairy tale-like plot lines and deeply serious meditations on the nature of Jewish identity and what he calls “positive imposture.” In his latest version of this tricky tightrope dance, “The Concert,” Mihaileanu, not satisfied with this already daunting task, adds an understated rumination on the possibilities of artistic collaboration, while constructing the kind of farce that calls for high style and impeccable timing.
In short, he is becoming the cinematic equivalent of a man juggling two chainsaws, a flaming torch and a live hand grenade while dancing “Swan Lake” on a bed of hot coals.
Needless to say, he doesn’t pull it off. But the result is one heck of an audacious act, created out of material that has the potential for insulin-shock-inducing sentimentality. That Mihaileanu manages to sidestep that particularly irksome possibility is a tribute to his wry sense of humor, which gives him just enough distance from his story’s more syrupy elements.
“The Concert” is his most ambitious film to date, moving beyond the complex logistics of “Train of Life” and the multiple period settings of “Live and Become.” By comparison with those two earlier films, the new work would seem to have a straightforward narrative. Filipov (Alexei Guskov in a deliciously nuanced performance) is a janitor at the Bolshoi, but once he was the orchestra’s greatest conductor until he defied Leonid Brezhnev by defending his Jewish instrumentalists. The result was a public humiliation during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
Now fate has thrown an opportunity for an unlikely redemption into his path. He has intercepted a fax intended for the real director of the Bolshoi and has booked them into a one-night-only gig in Paris. All he has to do is reassemble his old comrades and find them instruments, passports, airplane tickets, hotel accommodations in Paris and so on. To do so he must rely on his oldest and closest friend, Sasha (Dmitry Nazarov), a Jewish cellist who now is reduced to driving a ramshackle ambulance.
Filipov has an agenda as complex as his creator’s: he wants to meet and speak with a brilliant young violinist, Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent, who must play straight woman to a three-ring circus of comic actors), with whom he is seemingly obsessed, and to perform the Tchaikovsky again to complete a three-decade-long circle. Of course, he has a few ulterior motives that Mihaileanu reveals slowly and to surprisingly powerful effect. And all of his musicians have ulterior motives as well, frequently involving potentially lucrative and highly illegal business transactions.
For all the moving parts of this complicated mechanism to run smoothly, a filmmaker must have a high style and, most important, impeccable timing. As anyone who has seen “Live and Become” will reluctantly admit, Mihaileanu’s timing is great in the short run — the first two-thirds of that film is deeply moving — but his sense of overall structure is erratic. He just doesn’t know when to stop. If “Live and Become” had focused exclusively on its protagonist’s childhood and adolescence, on the difficulty of integrating oneself into an alien society, it could have been the definitive film about Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. But Mihaileanu has thematic fish to fry, centered on his hero’s mysterious past and his putative Jewishness.
In “The Concert,” the problems occur midway through the film. Although there are some wildly funny moments in the buildup to the trip to Paris and a few hearty chuckles after the “orchestra” arrives, the comic moments never rise to a crescendo. The great farceurs of cinema — Tati, Wilder, Preston Sturges, Edwards — know how to build a comic structure in which each gag leads logically into another and another until you are left gasping for air from all that laughter. Then, and only then, do they place the final card upon this structure, “the capper on the capper,” as the great Leo McCarey called it — a single last unexpected gag that reduces you and the plot to wreckage.
Mihaileanu, to be blunt, doesn’t know how to do that.
And that’s what “The Concert” so desperately needs. On the one hand, because he is looking at the material through a basically comic lens, the director doesn’t let the sentimentality of the material weigh the film down. But, conversely, because the film never achieves true heights of hilarity, we aren’t sufficiently transported to love the characters and to care about the film’s more serious subtext. As a result, “The Concert” never brings all the elements that Mihaileanu is juggling into a coherent whole. The film is always pleasant and cunningly acted and designed, but it should have been much more.
“The Concert” directed and co-written by Radu Mihaileanu, opens in New York City on Friday, July 30. For information on theaters and showtimes consult your local listings.