The Sonata

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Sonata
"Janis Eglitis' exquisite cinematography is beguiling in the proper sense." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Playing music well takes application, diligence, years of practice. Playing music brilliantly takes something beyond that - a willingness to surrender, to give oneself over to the purely intuitive part of the mind. This is an aspect of the creative process that has long fascinated mystics and occultists, who have been intrigued by the possibilities that emerge when the conscious mind becomes a conduit for something else. Andrew Desmond's gorgeously presented début film explores what happens when two such creative forces connect.

As the film opens, we learn that one of these people is already dead. The eccentric but much-admired composer (Rutger Hauer in one of his final performances, appearing only briefly but bringing a gravitas to the role that few could have matched) has bequeathed his estate to his estranged daughter, violin prodigy Rose (Freya Tingley). She doesn't want it. She's worked hard to build up her career on her own merits and doesn't need the legacy of a famous father changing the way people see her, so she arranges what she expects will be only a brief trip to France to arrange the sale of his chateau. On arrival, however, she discovers something unexpected: his final work, a violin sonata which seems to have been written especially for her. Even a quick glance tells her that it's something remarkable. The trouble is, parts of it seem to have been written in code.

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What is this mysterious work? Intrigued, she turns to her sometime manager Charles (Simon Abkarian) for help in deciphering it. As he search leads him to him surprising sources, Rose makes unexpected discoveries in the house itself. Haunted by strange dreams, she begins an exploration that will force her to confront the awful truth and her father, his sinister ambitions and what he did in pursuit of them.

It's difficult to tell a story about music like this and have the music itself bear sufficient weight, since there's no avoiding having it played at some point. That it comes close to success is thanks to the work of composer Alexis Maingaud, who cannot deliver supernatural genius but can, with Tingley's aid, create a performance sufficient to let the audience believe that's what they're hearing. Snatches of the melody are woven throughout the incidental music, which Maingaud also composed, adding to the sensation that this is a puzzle whose pieces are gradually being assembled, the film itself being a part of the completed work.

The horror here is largely built from hints and whispers but will have a deeper effect on those familiar with some of the darker episodes of French history, specifically in relation to the occult. Distressing as it is, it's important to keep this from becoming a purely intellectual exercise. The film also reflects on the potential for abuse in the relationships between managers and young stars, and finds interesting counterpoints in the different ways that Rose and Charles become obsessed by her father's creation. Janis Eglitis' exquisite cinematography is beguiling in the proper sense, making this all too easy a film to relax with, leaving viewers unprepared for the darkness within.

it's not perfect. Parts of it feel a little too contrived; others feel rushed. A slightly less heavy-handed approach to clue hunting would have been more aesthetically satisfying - though, perhaps, less accessible to a general audience. The Sonata never quite achieves the fluency towards which it strives, but few films of this kind do, and for those who love this subgenre it is nevertheless a pleasure.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2019
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After the death of her estranged but famous composer father Richard Marlow, young virtuoso violinist Rose inherits his old French mansion. There, she discovers her father’s final work: a mysterious score marked with arcane symbols. He may be dead but his plans for her are still very much alive.

Director: Andrew Desmond

Writer: Andrew Desmond, Arthur Morin

Starring: Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, Rutger Hauer, James Faulkner

Year: 2018

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK, France

Festivals:

Frightfest 2019

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