Beethoven unplugged

The flawed but passionate Immortal Beloved brings us inside the mind of an artist

In the middle of the public premiere of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode to Joy," the elderly, decrepit, bitter composer leaves his seat in the audience and wanders onstage as if drawn by a supernatural beacon. He's remembering an incident of childhood abuse at the hands of his drunken father when he evaded the man's rage and fled wildly through a moonlit forest. We feel as though we're in familiar musical biography territory: in reimagining his past before our eyes, the hero is explaining why he wrote a great work of art.

Yet there's nothing on the face of Gary Oldman, who plays Beethoven, to suggest a simplistic reading. As flashbacks unfold, frame by sumptuous frame, and the movie returns periodically to Beethoven to show us how he's feeling, the man's face isn't saying, "This music takes me back to that awful childhood incident that inspired my Ninth Symphony." It's saying something more complicated--that the incredible intensity of emotion expressed in this work of art compels him to ransack his memory for equally intense emotions.

It's a very fine distinction. The fact that Oldman and the movie bother to make it at all is extraordinary. And Immortal Beloved is full of moments like this--moments that take us deep into the soul of art and the artist, moments that transcend the constraints of commercial cinema and suggest the unsuggestable. It's one of the most passionate and eloquent films about art ever made.

Written and directed by Bernard Rose, a former music video ace whose career in features has been disappointing until now (he made the striking but uneven horror dramas Paperhouse and Candyman), the movie is so in love with its subject and with the process of filmmaking that it sometimes hurtles headlong into its own ambitions. The film is drunk on its own passion, yet this drunken, passionate quality is so winning that it keeps pushing the film forward even when it stumbles.

Immortal Beloved isn't a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination; its structure is derivative, its first half can be pretty slow going, and its attempts at bawdy humor often fall flat, probably because Rose is better at gloom than cheer. But at its best--namely, when the movie is examining the ways an artist's emotion fuels his life and art, and forces them to fuse and intertwine--it's mesmerizing and sometimes deeply moving.

In a baldfaced steal from Citizen Kane, the film begins at the end of Beethoven's life, with the elderly composer changing his last will and testament on his deathbed. He asks for a scrap of paper and scribbles a message asking that everything he own be left to his "immortal beloved." Then he kicks off, leaving his assistant, Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), to wander Europe interviewing every woman his master ever loved and trying to determine which one should be given his estate. The narrative takes the form of a detective story in which the search for an heir is a pretext for unlocking the mysteries of a genius' inspiration.

Schindler narrows the search down to three serious contenders. One is Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), a beautiful countess. Beethoven is so enraptured by her charms that he gives her piano lessons even though he can barely hear what he's supposed to be teaching her; he's deeply frustrated by his deafness, and he expresses this frustration by humiliating her. Giulietta loves him anyway, of course. She's like a modern-day pop groupie, so spellbound by a famous man's music that she overlooks his personal shortcomings.

Beethoven also dallied with another countess, a Hungarian angel named Anna Marie Erdody (the incomporable Isabella Rossellini, whose beauty as a camera subject is exceeded only by her keen reactive skills as an actress). They meet when Anna comes to see him conduct the Emperor Concerto--an infamous moment of public humiliation that revealed Beethoven's deafness to the world.

In this scene, Rose's touch is astonishingly precise, finding just the right mix of embarrassment, astonishment, and horror. In a bravura trick, which recurs periodically throughout the film, he cuts between what the musicians and the audience members hear (a magnificent symphony) and what Beethoven hears--an abstracted, soupy storm of thuds, whines, and distant hums, overlaid with a persistent, awful hiss, like the tide coming in. Anna walks to the front of the concert hall, takes Beethoven's hand, and leads him away, and soon they're in love. Unfortunately, Beethoven thrives on self-loathing; he's most effective as an artist when he's at his most miserable. He makes her miserable, which in turn makes him miserable and ensures his own perfect loneliness.

His unrequited love for the steely, gorgeous, strangely remote Johanna van Beethoven (Johanna Ter Steege) is the most pathetic and painful of the three. Beethoven flirted briefly with the woman; then she married his brother and broke his heart. He seems to hate her more than almost anyone else in his life, with the possible exception of his late father. His loathing of her is so petty and vindictive that it verges on psychosis.

It's the deliberate imprecision of Immortal Beloved, the overpowering emotional messiness of it, that hooked me. It paints everything so broadly you can see dried paint bubbles in the brush strokes; it's like a Romantic-era portrait in which the shadows are darker and the emotional tone far graver than in reality. The film soars straight toward the center of an artist's soul, then veers off, tantalizing us. It gets close and then backs off, acknowledging the limitations of art, respecting the mysteries of human character, and refusing to pretend it has all the answers.

The star, who I've despised for some time, deserves much of the credit for making the film work. Sometimes a movie star can become so enamored with the accessories of a Method-constructed part--the diction and accent, the mannerisms, the makeup and costumes--that he forgets how to draw on his own emotion to pull everything together. He constructs a shell convincingly, then doesn't fill it with anything. That's been Oldman's problem, more often than not: as an actor, he was all prizes and no Crackerjacks. Yet he's brilliant as Beethoven--tragic, scary, loathsome, and touching.

Oldman's face is suffused with pain and joy, yet you can't read into it deeply because his emotions are so idiosyncratic. His inner turmoil is so obvious and affecting that it's hard to resist being drawn to him, yet there's also a core of unnamed rage inside him that pushes people away. This Beethoven is a human being, but the forces that drive him remain a mystery.

Many sorrows pass through Beethoven's warped mind--busted relationships, financial troubles, even political backbiting and bloody war--and they emerge transformed into art. But the film is too smart to make a simple equation of this: it never says, "Here's the Fifth Symphony, which was inspired by the horrifying advance of Napoleon's troops." It instead allows Beethoven's art to mirror and capture the events he witnessed and endured--vividly but imprecisely. Like emotional X-rays, the symphonies tell us what's going on inside him, but they never presume to tell the whole story. The film is less a biography than a wild, colorful ode, full of dramatic flourishes and unexpected chord changes and bizarre, sometimes laughable inventions. It's like a piece of music: variations on a life.

Immortal Beloved. Columbia. Gary Oldman, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, Johanna Ter Steege. Written and Directed by Bernard Rose. Opens January 6.

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