French drama shows cinema as medium of vision and sound



106 minutes/Opens today/ 3 stars

The story: At a train station, music professor Pierre (Lambert Wilson) hears someone playing the public piano with exceptional skill. He spies a young man, Mathieu (Jules Benchetrit), but the lad appears to notice the police and flees. Mathieu lives in a crime-ridden apartment block and falls in with a gang of thieves who break into houses. At the professor's request, he is sentenced to community service and has to perform janitorial work at the music academy.

This is where he is introduced to his piano tutor, the formidable La Comtesse (Kristin Scott Thomas). Unless he plays by the rules, he will forfeit his lighter sentence and be sent to prison.

There is a stylistic lightness to this French tale of a pauper who becomes a prince of the piano that stops it from sinking into a quicksand of its own cliches.

Director Ludovic Bernard rose up assisting superstar director Luc Besson (Lucy, 2014; The Fifth Element, 1997,) so he knows how important strong visuals and a good soundtrack are in supporting an otherwise so-so story.

In scenes influenced by the language of music videos, musical wunderkind Mathieu (Jules Benchetrit) is whisked away from the sombre brutalism of his low-income apartment block and into minimalist chic of the music academy, all sleek steel and glass.

His flowering musical literacy is matched by a new romance, also moving forward in a tentative direction and set against some of Paris' prettiest landmarks.

Bubbling underneath is classical music, of course, but also a rock track that uses the song Where Is My Mind, from American alternative rockers The Pixies. That tune - in various forms including a version played on orchestral instruments - supports a number of scenes.

Jules Benchetrit plays the musical wunderkind, who is coached by a stern piano teacher (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Jules Benchetrit plays the musical wunderkind, who is coached by a stern piano teacher (Kristin Scott Thomas). PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

This is all amiable, heartwarming stuff, helped by the stern piano teacher La Comtesse, played by English actress Scott Thomas, whose forbidding presence is often used as comic relief.

The meat in the sandwich is supposedly Mathieu's thwarted musical development, intended to show how raw talent without resources to help it develop is nothing.

This is played against a growing father-son dynamic between the wayward teen and Lambert Wilson's professor, who appears to be nursing some psychological damage of his own.

Along the way to the climax, numerous plot devices are thrown in Mathieu's path, meant to increase tension but which are conveniently ignored at crunch time.

Never mind. This film serves as a reminder, too often forgotten in dramas which lean on dialogue, that cinema is a medium of vision and sound.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2019, with the headline 'French drama shows cinema as medium of vision and sound'. Print Edition | Subscribe