While delving through the list of new movies to find one to review for this week’s Paris Update, I was faced with some strange options. The obvious choice was the two-and-a-half hour biopic Violette, about the writer Violette Le Duc’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. However, both the length of the film and the preview, in which the beautiful actress Emmanuelle Devos as Violette sports a false nose and states several times how ugly she is, put me off.
Another possible movie choice was Mes Séances de Lutte (Love Battles), the synopsis of which proudly states that the two main characters (one male, one female) hurl invectives at each other before ending up wrestling in the mud. One has to be in the mood for mud wrestling, and the wet autumnal weather has provided so much mud that I did not feel the need to see it on the big screen as well. My final choice was a much more genteel affair: a documentary about the French classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud, Alexandre Tharaud: Le Temps Dérobé, directed by Raphaëlle Aelig Régnier.
At an 11 o’clock showing on a Monday morning, I expected to find myself in an empty cinema and was somewhat surprised to find it almost completely full, largely with women of a certain age. Tharaud clearly has a big following, and the documentary shows why. Not only is he blessed with good looks (I was surprised to find that he is in his 40s, as he is remarkably well preserved), but he is also a supreme musician.
The camera follows him through various rehearsals, recording sessions and concerts, and the breadth of his repertoire (he seems to be as much at ease playing through a recent piece in the presence of its composer as he is performing Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven or Debussy) and his perfectionism are hugely impressive.
Although the director’s habit of holding long close-up shots on Tharaud’s face or hands begins to pall after a few minutes, it is fascinating to see such a talented musician at work. I always thought that only operatic singers were obsessed with air-conditioning ruining their vocal chords, but Tharaud – for reasons that are not explained in the film – is seen covering up air-conditioning ducts in hotels and trains and wearing a face mask while asleep on planes. It made me think of that other great Bach pianist, Glenn Gould, who would wear thick overcoats even on the hottest of days.
Tharaud speaks eloquently of the loneliness of his life as a concert pianist. We may all dream of musical stardom, but the long journeys and brief stays in hotels across the world can be less than glamorous.
Above all, his attention to detail shines through, from the repeated rehearsal of a musical phrase to building up an understanding of each piano he uses at various concerts (he likens the difficulty of this task to an actor performing opposite a stranger every night).
For those of you unacquainted with this remarkable pianist, do try and see this interesting and introspective documentary or listen to his impressive catalogue of recordings. I would recommend his recording of Bach’s Italian concertos, played with sparkling clarity and moving simplicity.Favorite