“Manchester by the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck, uses part of Handel’s “Messiah.” The film’s director   also used classical music in an earlier movie, “Margaret.” (Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

I loved director Kenneth Lonergan’s lyrical and poignant “Manchester by the Sea” — for its acting, its screenplay (it won Oscars for both) and, less obviously, its score. The director uses classical music not only to support the dialogue, but also, in some cases, to replace it — such as in the extended funeral scene in which a selection from Handel’s “Messiah” becomes a lengthy counterpoint to grief, like a bracing sea wind intensifying the cutting edge of pain.

Classical music also is a focus of “Margaret,” Lonergan’s earlier and bigger opus, hailed by some as his masterpiece. Among that film’s many charms is original footage of Christine Goerke, Susan Graham and Renée Fleming singing at the Metropolitan Opera — for music fans, a considerable cut above your usual stock footage.

Although I liked “Margaret,” its use of music left me intensely frustrated. Yes, it offers two good chunks of opera — “Casta diva” from Bellini’s “Norma” and the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” But in “Margaret,” a smart film in most ways, it effectively reduced opera to the stuff of long-standing Hollywood stereotype. Opera, in the movies, is all too often a signifier of something elevated and transcendent that gives meaning to our humdrum lives — you’ve seen it in Hollywood a hundred times. And in “Margaret,” I felt that Lonergan had punted by handing off the ending to an artistic deus ex machina: an opera scene that was in this context a thoroughly trite, bourgeois way of presenting art.

This set me mulling over how classical music is used in film — and the way that referring to an artwork in the middle of another narrative, be it film, painting or novel, can unintentionally subvert it.

Plenty of film scores, of course, qualify as “classical music:” from “Margaret’s” original score by Nico Muhly to classics by Nino Rota, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, John Williams or even Dmitri Shostakovich. When I consider classical music in film, though, I’m thinking of actual concert works from the classical canon: Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in “Apocalypse Now,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

Film directors tend to use classical music in one of two ways. Sometimes, it’s simply used as a regular soundtrack, an accompaniment to the story: Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto in David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in Stephen Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” or any of the pieces in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film that stamped the opening of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” indelibly into the minds and ears of a couple of generations of American moviegoers. 

But classical music also is often used as a plot point. In “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts goes to the opera and tears up at the story of another courtesan with a heart of gold. In “Apocalypse Now,” Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore flips the switch on a reel-to-reel tape player mounted in his helicopter and blasts “Ride of the Valkyries” as a surreal accompaniment to the helicopters, a modern incarnation of flying warriors, strafing a Vietnamese village. In “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Billy Kwan, played by Linda Hunt, seeks emotional refuge in a recording of “Beim Schlafengehen,” one of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” In all of these cases, the act of listening to the music is a part of the story. 

And often enough, the music in such scenes is used as a signifier. Only rarely is listening to music as organic a part of a whole story as in “Moonstruck,” a film that, with its overblown humor and poignancy, seems a natural, organic outgrowth of the scene from “La Bohème” at its heart. Lonergan’s use of opera as a beautiful, soothing and significant sound mirrors the scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Tim Robbins’s character broadcasts a duet from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” through the startled prison, and Morgan Freeman says in a voice-over, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about . . . and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Art is inherently great — and inherently meaningless. Or rather, its meaning is reserved for the divinely touched few. That message has been hammered into us over and over, from “The Waltz King” to “Amadeus” — though I have not gone through Naxos’s list of more than 400 movies featuring classical music to tally the data. 

Classical music seems to work most effectively — to leave its tropes, if you will — in films that question, challenge or recontextualize it. Juxtaposing contrasting messages, for instance, can set up a resonant counterpoint, such as the opening sequence of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” in which Robert De Niro dances around the boxing ring, as if freed from gravity by the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana.” The “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in “Apocalypse Now,” thrusting together glorious music and nightmarish images of war, taps into decades of debate about Wagner and morality and the conundrum of people who do bad things but love good things. Another memorable encapsulation of the bad-man-loving-good-art conundrum is the scene in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” in which Anthony Hopkins, as Hannibal Lecter, listens to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” indicating, not least to himself, that he is infinitely superior to the lumbering guards who bring him his dinner, and whom he brutally murders. Not only does the moment underline the fascination of Lecter, but it also subverts classical music’s wonted role as signifier of the good.

It’s a challenge to introduce a powerful work of art within another one. You lose control of your own narrative. You may not do justice to the work you’re incorporating, and if you do, the audience may wind up focusing on Beethoven rather than on you. This isn’t a problem unique to film: Novelists, too, sometimes attempt to evoke specific works of art they particularly love and then, in the absence of the music, are challenged to come up with prose virtuosic and expressive enough to convey something of the reality to people who don’t know it.

“And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed,” wrote Anthony Burgess about Beethoven’s 9th in “A Clockwork Orange.” This became a de facto challenge to Kubrick, the director who adapted the novel for the screen, to try to keep the distinctive point of view, because a literal cinematic translation of prose about music would be just a piece of music. (Kubrick solved the problem by having part of the text as a voice-over.)

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony accompanies the story in “Minority Report,” left, which stars Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton. (ScreenProd / Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo)

Lonergan clearly has a far more sophisticated appreciation of classical music than many — as “Manchester by the Sea” showed. And I’m sure he would be surprised that the opera in “Margaret” left me so cold. Lonergan, too, was striving to create a counterpoint between the purity of beauty and the complexity of life, and the way that one can lift you above the other. But his love of music here appeared to be essentially cliched as his own artistic response failed him and he simply handed over the reins to the music, letting the “Barcarolle” from “The Tales of Hoffmann,” a very pretty but not very meaningful piece, do the heavy lifting of catharsis.

There’s a huge difference between that and the kind of dialogue Luchino Visconti undertook with the music of Gustav Mahler in “Death in Venice,” in which the music was such a palpable presence throughout the movie that there was something inevitable when it took over the action, as the film faded away to the most slow and sustained images, until the score had swept away the characters and continued unbroken over the death of the protagonist, on over the credits and, perhaps, out the door. The music has the last word, but the director doesn’t let go of the reins for a moment.