Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"What makes the film come alive is its rich portrait of a family which, in its complexities, encapsulates the history of Europe and the Americas in the 20th Century."

Celebrated Argentinian-born pianist Martha Aregrich, known for her passionate interpretations of Chopin and Prokofiev, is one of those rare public figures to have succeeded in keeping her personal life almost entirely private. Now in her seventies, she is portrayed here first and foremost as a mother, by her her daughter Stéphanie, but the artist as a young mother is a complicated creature and the story is far from simple. Along the way. Stéphanie reflects on the mysterious parallel voyages of her sisters, on the various men who temporarily functioned as fathers, and on her relationship with her biological father, the classical pianist Stephen Kovacevich.

There's a lot here that's familiar. The wayward life of the artist is almost cliché, but Stéphanie contrasts it tellingly with her father's strong work ethic. We get intermittent opportunities to enjoy Martha's performances, though perhaps not as many as fans will have hoped for. We meet her long-term manager, who struggles to imagine doing anything else with his life, and we see her signing autographs ("I once bit one of them," says Stéphanie of her childhood jealousy of the fans). What makes the film come alive, though, is its rich portrait of a family which, in its complexities, encapsulates the history of Europe and the Americas in the 20th Century.

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Even the name Argerich speaks of the Catalonian diaspora. Then there's the Russian Jewish ancestry once treated like a shameful family secret. Los Angeles-born Kovacevich was himself the son of a Croatian immigrant. Relationships with a Chinese composer and French conductor gave Martha two more daughters, the first of whom, Lyda, she abandoned, though they are amicably reunited as adults. Stéphanie speaks of her surprise at first learning of Lyda's existence. She finds it hard to imagine her way into all these spaces. Trying to, she saturates the film with evocative imagery, tugging the viewer into the fused landscape manufactured from these fragments by a child. The music adds its own cultural complexity. Martha, says the manager, is at her most alive when playing. Watching those performances as a child, Stéphanie says, she was filled with the sense that something terrible was about to happen.

For somebody who has been secretive for so long, Martha herself is astoundingly open as she allows her daughter to ask the kind of questions most people don't think of until after their parents are dead. This doesn't mean the answers are easily expressed. Picnicking in the park with all three of her daughters, she tries to explain her experience of gender, of feeling neither male nor female, without any of the relevant language. She doesn't like to be classified, they conclude, but the reality seems deeper than that: she is raw, diffuse; she doesn't know how.

It's said that the best teachers are those who have struggled to understand their subjects themselves. Stéphanie's uncertainty leads her to deliver an open narrative, full of possibilities. The real work of interpretation is left for the viewer, but the film is stronger for it.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2015
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A documentary portrait of the musicians Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, made by their daughter.
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Director: Stéphanie Argerich

Starring: Martha Argerich, Stephen Kovacevitch, Lyda Chen, Stéphanie Argerich, Anne Dutoit

Year: 2012

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: France, Switzerland


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