A former acclaimed Russian conductor, demoted to cleaner during the Soviet era, comically schemes to book himself and his former musicians into a prestigious Parisian booking after he intercepts an offer of a show. Making ends meet by unexpected means, they arrive in Paris only to fall into disarray, even as the young French violin soloist who has agreed to play with them begins to realise her connection to their collective past.
Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert begins as a boisterous farce and triumphantly concludes as a triumph of artistic endeavour, which is as unexpected a deception as the one that propels the plot: a fallen Soviet era conductor intercepts a fax while cleaning the head of a Moscow orchestra’s office and decides that he will accept the Parisian show offered and take his former musicians. It’s a hare-brained idea, but Mihaileanu opens the film so quickly and cleanly, with Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) conducting from the shadows instead of mopping up, that you instantly understand his heartfelt desire to once more wield the baton.
It also makes sense in the contemporary Russia that the Romanian-born and French-based filmmaker sketches, where Filipov’s wife supports them by booking extras for political demonstrations and the weddings of corrupt oligarchs – in such a country why not proclaim yourself an orchestra and negotiate a deal? Anything is up for grabs.
As Andrei careens around Moscow, searching for musicians with his best friend, bear-like former cellist Sacha Grossman (Dimitri Nazarov), you may suspect that this is a paean to the former Soviet era, when artists were supported by the state and culture wasn’t merely a trophy for the wealthy. But the excesses of totalitarianism outweigh the crudity of capitalism, as it’s revealed that Filipov was demoted, literally during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for defying then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and retaining Jewish musicians.
Shattered professionally as he was, Filipov wasn’t treated as poorly as some of his collaborators, a fate that is revealed once they arrive in Paris – having queued up to procure fake passports literally in the departure lounge from criminal contacts of the first violinist – and meet the soloist, Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent), that he has insisted on having play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the musicians once more. Mihaileanu takes his time revealing the emotive underpinning, and at first the Russian musicians grab the opportunity to live in Paris, abandoning rehearsals to take up the jobs, or scams, that they previously had in Moscow; it’s a lovely echo of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka.
The film doesn’t spare the sentiment, veering from antic uproar to broad melancholy, and it has the feel of a more commercially minded Emir Kusturica; anyone is up for grabs. As a comedy it’s a forceful farce, with much wailing whenever disagreement looms. It takes a grave visage to play it straight in such circumstances, which is something that Guskov has in spades. His performance barely notices the many comic riffs that the screenplay builds, such as the billionaire amateur cellist who sponsors the airfares on the assumption that he will play with the orchestra.
The extended finale, based around the performance by a seemingly ramshackle orchestra and a doubtful Anne-Marie, spares little in the desire to be rousing, with the various movements of the Tchaikovsky piece growing in stature. Mihaileanu believes that no matter what, artistry will ascend to where it belongs, and he also proves it can descend by cutting away from the performance to chart the successful future of the mismatched group, offering up various visual gags even as the musicians play not for their own lives, but those lost to them. It’s not just a sentimental crowd-pleaser, it’s canny as well.