'Page Turner': A Musician's Life in the Key Of Vengeance

Ariane (Catherine Frot, left) is targeted by Melanie (Deborah Francois) in the taut French drama.
Ariane (Catherine Frot, left) is targeted by Melanie (Deborah Francois) in the taut French drama. (Tartan Films)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

What "The Page Turner" lacks in scale and ambition, it makes up for in precision. It's a small French delicacy, tart, acerbic, cynical, that focuses on three or four characters and yet manages to bring them and their dilemmas to vivid life.

The milieu is classical music at the professional level, the backdrop refined, the subject revenge, the methodology meticulous. When it's over, some lives have been destroyed, somebody has enjoyed the taste of vengeance served with a decade's worth of chill, and barely 85 minutes have passed. Who knew the French were so efficient?

Maybe it was watching her butcher parents slice rabbit and chicken into small slivers and patties that gave Melanie (Julie Richalet is the child actress) such a cool skill at disassembly. At any rate, her more ostensible talent is for the piano, and when we meet her at 10 on the day that she plays before a panel that will or will not admit her to a prestigious academy, she's naturally nervous. As she begins her prelude, one of the judges is interrupted by an autograph seeker, and so frail a grasp does the young woman have on her talent, she lets it destroy her. The result is pitiful: hopes, dreams, years gone in a trice, smashed on the shoals of a momentary slip in concentration.

You or I might argue: Well, get over it, get on with it. Try again, take up another instrument or life, don't brood or plot, and maybe face the reality that most such "bad luck" screw-ups contain an element of self-destruction.

But Melanie is not you nor I. (Who would make a movie about us?) Melanie seems someone out of a novel by Simenon or Highsmith or even Jeffrey Deaver: a seemingly oh-so-ordinary person whose pleasant facade and controlled demeanor effectively hide the fact that she really wants to mess somebody up. Deborah Francois, whose blond opacity and emotionally untainted eyes may remind you a little of Chloe Sevigny, plays the young woman Melanie grows into, and the movie follows as she insinuates her way into the lives of those whom she considers her targets.

We, of course, don't know her plans -- that's part of the genius of Denis Dercort's movie, the way we learn the truth about Melanie at the same pace as her victims. We see her snake her way into a law firm where she's a superb clerk; from there, it's but a few months until the wealthy senior partner has hired her as a temporary nanny for his son because his wife, a pianist, is preparing for an important concert.

It's no surprise that the pianist, wife and mother is Ariane (Catherine Frot), whose momentary lack of respect blindsided Melanie all those years back. What follows is slow, exquisite destruction of one by another, as the fragile pianist (who has no memory left of the day she ruined Melanie's life) becomes the toything of the younger, crueler woman.

I suppose it's sort of like watching a young spider enmesh, then devour, an old fly. You will hate yourself for not being able to look away, but the level of invention is quite high. Smoothly, Melanie slides into the position of "page turner," the one who sits next to her patron on the bench and turns the leaves of the composition. For a classical pianist, especially one so mentally delicate as poor, fraught Ariane, the turner must become more than an enabler, almost a collaborator. The two must have between them rapport, a consistent interpretation of the music and a sense of the talents and personalities of the other musicians (it's a classical trio, hungry for success if just poised on its cusp). And, of course, we realize: the more the trust, the more the pain.

Almost effortlessly the movie plays with these ideas, not merely the bond between pianist and turner but also the politics of the trio, of the family, and the professional and emotional contexts surrounding each of them, even the couple's child. Each is vivid, even if only on-screen for a few minutes.

The film moves with the relentless logic of a pool game, almost geometrical in the way the younger woman stalks the older. It's a cold dish but undeniably savory.

The Page Turner (85 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

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