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'The Accompanist' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 11, 1994

Claude Miller's "The Accompanist" is a tasteful art-house tease of a movie that promises a great deal more than it delivers. Set in Paris during the German occupation, the film centers on the relationship between an international opera star and the young pianist who becomes her concert and rehearsal partner. That's simple enough, but from the film's first minutes Miller makes it clear that he sees the relationship as a symbolic one.

Before Sophie (Romane Bohringer) meets her future employer, she hears Irene (Elena Safonova) perform, and in the eyes of this gifted but unworldly girl, Irene seems like a sublime realization of success. Standing at ease on the stage in an elegant off-white satin dress, Irene looks like a long-stemmed flower in full bloom. For her, music is an effortless labor of pure, natural joy.

By contrast, Sophie, with her boyish haircut and clunky shoes, feels earthbound and without luster, like an ugly duckling impatient for her own transformation. To Sophie, Irene is a kind of angel, or at least this is what Miller suggests by scattering images of angels throughout the movie.

But the director's visual clues don't convey whatever it is that he is trying to say. Repeatedly, Miller dangles an idea or theme then leaves it undeveloped. At first he seems interested in raising the issue of class, using Sophie's poor background and lack of polish to illustrate the gulf separating the two women, but once these observations are made, they're abandoned. Similarly, when Miller introduces Irene's wealthy husband, Charles (played by Richard Bohringer, Romane's real-life father), the stage is set for Miller to draw connections between Charles's collaborative business relations with the Germans and the musical partnership between Sophie and Irene. But, again, the parallels are laid out, then ignored. Some implication is made that Sophie has been just as tainted by her association with Charles and Irene as the couple are by their collaboration with the Nazis. And yet, this is dealt with so vaguely that its significance is unclear even as it relates to Charles and Irene, much less Sophie.

Certainly the film (which Miller and Luc Beraud adapted from the novel by Nina Berberova) looks rich and smart, and that, along with the classical selections on the soundtrack, may cause some viewers to overlook its muddy logic. Romane Bohringer has a sensitive, thoughtful presence, but Sophie is a bit of a cipher, more a collection of attitudes than a real person. And, though Safonova is a beautiful, expressive actress, her portrayal of Irene is so composed and cold that she never gives much of herself away. She remains as remote at the end as she was at the beginning.

By the end of this passably entertaining story, Sophie has had several chances to break with Irene and her husband as they flee Paris, but she remains with them. Ultimately she becomes a witness to their tragedy, and Miller, it seems, wants to condemn her for her passivity. But could this be his point? That Sophie is like the French who watched the Nazis but did nothing? One character, a young Jewish soldier, is presented as an example of someone who has taken meaningful action. Sophie, on the other hand, realizes that she has been living vicariously through Irene, hiding behind her in order to avoid making her own choices. And though Sophie seems to find great profundity in this realization, for us it's an anticlimax. We've been asked to go a long way, it seems, to come back with so little.

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