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‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1992

An ode to a baroque cellist, "Tous les Matins du Monde" also mourns the world of sounds lost to the clatter of civilization. It is a film about music drawn from silence, broken by the melody of a rainstorm. And its voice is dark, the timbre low, funereal even in rejoicing. If it celebrates anything, it is the inspiration of sorrow.

Like "Babette's Feast" in its austerely beautiful palette and "Amadeus" in its tormented artistic soul, the film contrasts the choices of a noted court musician, Marin Marais (Gerard Depardieu), with those of his reclusive tutor, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Both men were stars of the 17th-century pop music scene, an aristocratic milieu that was dominated by those proficient in the viola da gamba (the mother of the modern cello).

Musicologists know little about the life of Sainte Colombe -- not his first name, when he died or when he was born -- but his most direct disciple was Marais, the Eddie Van Halen of the court of Louis XV. Essayist Pascal Quignard's screenplay, which is sometimes too literary and occasionally tedious, is a starkly melodramatic fictionalization of the relationship between the dour Sainte Colombe and the foppish younger man. Quignard, a scholar of baroque music, gives Sainte Colombe two beautiful daughters, the austere Madeleine (Anne Brochet) and the capricious Toinette (Carole Richert), by his beloved late wife (Caroline Sihol), whose memory haunts his music much the way the music haunts the movie.

In many ways it is the story of a man wedded to grief, a sexually frustrated widower who makes love to his viol as if it were his young wife's body. Sainte Colombe, solemnly, intensely portrayed by Marielle, is also a failure as a parent to his obliging little daughters (played as children by Violaine Lacroix and Nadege Teron). A self-absorbed man who takes no comfort in the company of people or the written word, he is also stingy in showing his children physical love. He gives them what he can, and that is his considerable musical vocabulary.

"It was said he could imitate the full range of the human voice, from a young woman's sigh to an old man's sob, from Henry IV's battle cry to a child's sleeping breath," says Marais, a bewigged and thickly powdered old fat man who narrates the story in flashback. The story begins with a flood of memories that overtake Marais during a rehearsal of a Sainte Colombe composition at Versailles. The tears cut canyons through his makeup and splash onto his ribbons and lace. Depardieu, as bloated as a Las Vegas Elvis, brings enormous dignity to this performance, a weaving together of remorse for lost youth and the wisdom of his great age.

In real life Marais had surpassed the talents of Sainte Colombe within six months, but here he is a bit slower on the uptake. The brash young Marais (Depardieu's son Guillaume) is turned away when he first petitions Sainte Colombe to become a student. Sainte Colombe correctly observes, "You make music. You are not a musician," but his daughters intercede on behalf of the first attractive young man they have ever seen.

When the relationship between the men ends in a feud, Madeleine, an accomplished violist herself, teaches Marais everything she has learned. This leads to an affair, which ends as it must when Marais leaves the Sainte Colombe country estate for the glamour of the court. Years later Madeleine, who has never recovered from the rejection, asks Marais to play the song he wrote for her one last time. "Slowly. Go slower," she says, as hollow-eyed and knowing as La Traviata in her bed. Though he has come in hopes of gaining access to her father's musical portfolio, he finally realizes what he has lost in the pursuit of renown and devotes himself to becoming a true musician.

Depardieu the Elder plays this last moving scene with an anguish his son couldn't possibly command, even though the transition between actors is physically quite preposterous. The serenely gifted Brochet, who also played opposite Depardieu in "Cyrano de Bergerac," comments on her leading man's dandified look and noticeable weight gain without ever relinquishing the gravity of this scene.

Marielle, precisely stroking his viol, his stony face softening almost imperceptibly with the crying of his instrument, is both maddening and perfect. In fact the entire cast seems born to the period.

Alain Corneau, who won a French Oscar for directing "Tous les Matins du Monde," brings a painter's eye and sense of composition to this tastefully somber film. His spare and exacting canvas seems the ideal backdrop for the baroque score conducted by Jordi Savall, just as Sainte Colombe's obsessive puritanism made such a fine foil for the absurdly beribboned opulence of Louis' court. For all its reserve, the film speaks directly to the heart.

"Tous les Matins du Monde" is in French with English subtitles.

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