A multi-layered allegorical puzzle, “Music” recasts the Oedipus myth as a surrogate cipher, swapping words and rearranging letters to push the familiar text toward the distant brink of abstraction. Enigmatic in form and uncompromising in intent, the film is, by any general definition, a dense and challenging work. But the project, for better or worse, feels more like a self-challenge for director Angela Schanelec—a puzzle to be created rather than solved, an intricately constructed Ship of Theseus in a bottle that prompts a muted admiration for the process.
Beginning and ending with neither titles nor overtures, “Music” settles into a mythic register from the outset, opening with long shots of distant mountains shrouded in a mist that probably hasn’t lifted since Homeric times. The title itself takes on an ironic edge, given the near-silence of the film’s opening act; until around half an hour the first human voice is heard, and another thirty minutes later the first melody is heard, until then we remain navigating a harsh landscape immortalized in harsh compositions.
Environmental clues suggest that we are in Greece, although Greece is more modern than contemporary. As in the films of Alice Rohrwacher, Schanelec constructs a timeless recent past, filling the screen with cars and clothes from the day before yesterday, technology from the year before you were born.
Finally, a new child arrives, who is just as quickly picked up by a local doctor and taken away from the birth home. Reeling through millennia of history—while reminding us that this isn’t your parents’ Oedipus—we next see the child by the ankles as he bathes on a river bank, and we’re made to connect with Achilles, which literally becomes real when Schanelec reintroduces the now-grown boy in swollen red heels .
The actor and musician Aliocha Schneider played with a sulk, the main role is led by Jon. Finally, he speaks, and then, according to the myth, he kills, then falls in love with and marries the one woman he really would have been better off not meeting – here he is speaking for Iro (Agathe Bonitzer). Note that this Jocasta analogue is not specifically positioned as her husband’s mother. Instead, she is introduced as one of the female guards at the all-male prison where Jon is being held. Iro is the first character to form a complete sentence and also introduces his later beauty to the beauty of music.
This melodic introduction—much of it written by Canadian songwriter Doug Tielli and then performed on screen by Schneider—marks Schanelec’s most enduring departure from his source myth, swapping the fatalism of Greek tragedy for a sentiment more common on American pop radio: this music save your mortal soul. Still, don’t expect the deliberately abstract film to build on the subject beyond pointing it out.
“Music” is an action film without explanation, symbols without ciphers. The actors perform with dispassionate affectation, speaking in a Brechtian distancing pattern reminiscent of German epic theater, while in the prison where Jon and Iro meet, the prisoners are provided with cothurns, the raised wooden sandals worn by ancient Greek actors. In fact, like the poppourri of source mythology, Schanelec follows no formal blueprint and invokes no muse, blending artistic inspirations into a style that might be called “epic naturalism”—and if the term sounds like a contradiction, a great contradiction reflects the filmmaker’s rigorous conceptual project.
For Schanelec, each frame is a manifesto—a canvas that must initially be covered with layers of meaning that must then be peeled back and stripped away until nothing but the most spartan brushstrokes remain. Anodyne as it may be on the surface, almost every frame is the result of rigorous blocking and choreography, each shot bearing a sort of “Good Filmmaking” seal of approval that widens the gap between the film’s intentionality and opacity. The fact that both Schneider and Bonitzer are French, that Schanelec is German, and that the narrative takes place (very specifically) in pre-eurozone Greece doesn’t seem like a happy coincidence, just good luck getting those floating adjectives more twisted. point of cohesion.
This frustration is undoubtedly part of Schanelec’s larger design, the open end of his plan to abstract Greek myths while embroidering them with hyperspecific embellishments. A pivotal suicide (no spoilers here, but the Sophocles play is over 2,500 years old) is the most effective expression of this formal approach. A fixed shot opens on the cliff side of the sea as a pair of human feet enter the frame. They linger in their place, the wind blows, and a lizard crawls by, clinging to one leg. The feet finally step forward, disappearing into the abyss as the natural world continues unnoticed and unchanged.
The stand-alone recording, which lasts no more than a minute, is impressive. The nearly two-hour film, which maintains a similar feat of composition, without the same (almost elementary) thematic clarity, is a tougher proposition. Struggling at every point between the filmmaker’s cockiness and hyper-specification, the once-mythical figures eventually lose gravity, falling back to earth as overly literal representations of Schanelec’s over-determined style—and not much else.
“Music” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It will be released by Cinema Guild at a later date.
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