Notes on “A Late Quartet”

Fenster writes:

The 2012 film A Late Quartet concerns a series of events that threatens the stability of a world-renowned string quartet, a group that has been together for 25 years.


Events are set in motion when the group’s cellist (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with a debilitiating illness.  When he announces his decision to play one final concert and then retire, the cohesion of the group is shattered as the other members react to the news in different ways, each evidencing issues that had been held in check by the stability that the group work afforded.

The film is a lot of things, including, per the above, a wonderful study in both individual psychology and group dynamics.  The script is literate and powerful, and it takes seriously not only the music itself but the choices the characters make as musicians.  That is, their work and their art are treated with a respect that is not common in many films, where such details are often treated as grist for the melodramatic mill.  I wrote about Mado that it was uncommon in how it took the details of real estate seriously.  The same thing is true here with respect to being an artist in a string quartet for a quarter of a century.

The acting is wonderful, too.  You have Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman as two of the leads and that would be more than enough.  But the first violinist is also played impeccably by a guy named Mark Ivanir, who I know I have seen before but could not really place.  The quartet is rounded out by Catherine Keener on viola.  Keener has long been one of my favorite actresses since she is so damn good at comedy played with fingernails running down a blackboard in the background.  But here she’s more than just good at mining murky places for laughs.  Here it is murky all the way down, and that is true of all four.  In the end, it’s mostly a tragedy.

The tension between tragedy and comedy got played out in an interesting way for me in this film.

We tend to think of the relationship between tragedy and comedy in terms of a strict polarity


like yin and yang.

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The yin-yang formulation invites us to think of polarities as equal-but-opposite but it is not clear to me that this is the actual relationship between comedy and tragedy.   Consider how often we come to tragedy through comedy: the laughing through pain, the funny moment that disturbs.  But is it as common to come to comedy through tragedy?  It seems to me that that is harder to do.  

I think you find some of that counterintuitive approach in this film.  By the end you cannot help but see what fools those mortals be.  It didn’t cause a chuckle, exactly, but there was some dark comedy lurking in there somewhere.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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3 Responses to Notes on “A Late Quartet”

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