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TCM Imports - April 2010
Remind Me

Tous les Matins du Monde

It took the efforts of an author, a musician, and a filmmaker to launch the production of Tous les matins du monde, a beguiling French drama released in 1991. The original idea came from director Alain Corneau, who was interested in seventeenth-century music and manners. Next to join the project was novelist Pascal Quignard, a music-minded writer who had been impressed by the little-known French composer Sainte-Colombe when he heard pieces recorded by Jordi Savall, a virtuoso of the old-fashioned viol, which Quignard had written about in the past. Quignard then wrote a novel in which the main characters are Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, a student of Sainte-Colombe who lived a more conventional life and acquired much more wealth and fame than his eccentric teacher. Quignard and Corneau penned a screenplay based on the novel, and Savall signed up to give technical advice and play his viols on the soundtrack. The crowning touch came when French superstar Gerard Depardieu agreed to play the minor part of Marais as a mature man, and his son Guillaume Depardieu took the important role of Marais as a youth. Family resemblances between the two Depardieus are strong, so casting them as Marais père and Marais fils was a pitch-perfect idea.

The movie's most inspired moment comes at the very beginning, when Corneau fills the screen with a long close-up of old Marais's face as he listens to musicians rehearsing one of his pieces, grumbling unhappily about their interpretation, which lacks the "austerity and rage" that his teacher Sainte-Colombe treasured. The rest of the picture shows the story of Marais's relationship with Sainte-Colombe, an ornery artiste who feels nobody can play the viol correctly except himself and his two daughters, who've had the benefit of his brilliant instruction ever since their mother's death. Marais pesters him to take him on as a student, and finally Sainte-Colombe agrees, despite his insistence that the technically skilled youngster completely lacks the mysterious je ne sais quoi that separates mere instrumentalists from true musicians. Relations between them are stormy-the plot somewhat recalls Amadeus, the 1984 drama about Mozart and a less-renowned rival-and tension also builds between Marais and one of Sainte-Colombe's daughters, who falls in love with him and meets with tragedy when he dumps her to become a court musician. In the end Marais realizes that his quest for riches and honors kept him from achieving the profound artistry that Sainte-Colombe richly embodied.

Most of the film's story is fictional, weaving imaginary events around a handful of facts gleaned from an eighteenth-century book used by Quignard in his research. The life of Sainte-Colombe is especially murky, even for musicologists; he was so reclusive that he performed only in his own home, when he performed at all, and he was known by his last name because he apparently felt that giving out his first name would compromise his privacy. That said, he was unquestionably a towering musician-revered for coaxing from his instrument the infinite shadings of the human voice--and a figure of great historical importance, inventing the viola da gamba (which paved the way for the modern cello) by adding a seventh AA string to the fingerboard of the bass viol, as the movie shows. The film also alludes to nonmusical aspects of seventeenth-century French culture. The artist Lubin Baugin shows up briefly in the story, and cinematographer Yves Angelo has lit and composed many shots with a dark-toned dreaminess that recalls the style of Georges de La Tour, one of the period's greatest painters. The movie also hints that Sainte-Colombe's almost mystical conception of music reflects his involvement with Jansenism, a Roman Catholic offshoot that has intrigued such major French filmmakers as Éric Rohmer and Robert Bresson.

Tous les matins du monde literally means "all the mornings of the world," and in Quignard's book it's part of a sentence that loosely translates as "every morning only dawns once." The film didn't garner any American prizes after its premiere, but it really cleaned up in the César Awards, which are France's answer to the Academy Award sweepstakes. In addition to a best-picture win, Césars went to Corneau's directing, Angelo's camerawork, Savall's music, Corinne Jorry's costume designs, Anne Brochet's portrayal of Sainte-Colombe's elder daughter, and more, plus nominations for the screenplay, the film editing, Jean-Pierre Marielle's performance as Sainte-Colombe, and Guillaume Depardieu as most promising new actor. On top of this, the soundtrack album became a huge bestseller in France and beyond. Although no prizes went to Gerard Depardieu, his participation was clearly inspiring to the others. Brochet and Marielle had appeared with him in major movies before (e.g., the 1990 films Cyrano de Bergerac and Uranus, respectively) and while his son has a more restrained and traditional acting style, he must have learned a lot from the versatile Gerard.

For a movie that's all about music, Tous les matins du monde is surprisingly sloppy about syncing the actors' fingers with the overdubbed notes they're supposedly playing; you can't help noticing when a gambist's fingers race around the fingerboard while the soundtrack gives out a single sustained pitch. (Guillaume Depardieu is a partial exception, since he's a cello player.) But such shortcomings didn't bother many American critics, including Roger Ebert, who called the film "a simple story, made of three things: music, love, and regret." New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin, who found it too heavy on "art-filled ambiance," nonetheless praised it as a "reserved and elegant portrait...utterly true to the spirit of [Sainte-Colombe's] work. I found the picture's overall mood a bit stodgy in my Christian Science Monitor review, but I applauded Gerard for his "wonderfully dour and offbeat performance." It's still enjoyable to see."

Producer: Jean-Louis Livi
Director: Alain Corneau
Screenplay: Pascal Quignard, Alain Corneau, based on Quignard's novel
Cinematographer: Yves Angelo
Film Editing: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte
Production Design: Bernard Vézat
Music: Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais, Jean-Baptiste Lully, François Couperin, Jordi Savall
Cast: Jean-Pierre Marielle (Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe), Gérard Depardieu (old Marin Marais), Anne Brochet (Madeleine), Guillaume Depardieu (young Marin Marais), Carole Richert (Toinette), Michel Bouquet (Lubin Baugin), Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Abbé Mathieu), Yves Gasc (Lequieu), Yves Lambrecht (Charbonnières), Jean-Marie Poirier (de Bures), Myriam Boyer (Guignotte), Violaine Lacroix (young Madeleine), Nadège Teron (young Toinette), Caroline Sihol (Mme de Sainte-Colombe), voices of Philippe Duclos (Brunet), Yves Gourvil (Lequieu).

by David Sterritt



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