There is an image in "Immortal Beloved" as evocative
as any I can remember - as complete as the sled in "Citizen Kane," or
the shadowy doorway in "The Third Man." A boy runs through the forest
at night to a perfectly still lake, and floats on his back. The camera pulls
back, and we see the stars of the sky reflected in the water.
then it seems as if the boy is floating in the firmament - lost in the stars.
On the soundtrack, we hear the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth
that attempt to match visual images to great music are often asking for
trouble. Remember the "1812 Overture" playing in Ken Russell's biopic
of Tchaikovsky, the cannon roars illustrated by images of soldiers' heads being
blown off? What Bernard Rose has accomplished in "Immortal Beloved"
is a film that imagines the mental states of Beethoven with a series of images
as vivid and convincing as a dream.
film unfolds like a biographical puzzle. Beethoven after his death left a
letter addressed to his "immortal beloved," with no hint as to who
that person was. As a last testament this document may have been faulty, but as
a biographical puzzle it was a masterstroke, inspiring two centuries of fevered
speculations, of which this film is the latest and most romantic. I doubt Rose
has solved the puzzle of the unnamed beloved, but I care not, because he has
done something more valuable: He has created a fantasy about Beethoven that
evokes the same disturbing, ecstatic passion we hear in his music.
film opens with Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), Beethoven's confidante, beginning a
search for the immortal beloved. As he visits first one and then another
possible source of information, it is impossible not to be reminded of the
hapless reporter who sought the meaning of "Rosebud" in "Citizen
Kane." As he visits the important women in Beethoven's life, we see
flashbacks to the composer's disorderly and precarious existence, and we hear
music, magnificent music.
for the director of a musical biography, Rose has paid as much attention to the
music as to the biography. Most biopics about classical composers dredge up
obscure, low-rent recordings of the music. Not this one. The film's musical
supervisor is Sir Georg Solti, conducting the London Orchestra, with soloists
such as Murray Perahia and Yo-Yo Ma. If there are moments when we doubt
Beethoven was thinking exactly these images as he composed, there are others
when the momentum of the story takes over, and we identify with a tortured
genius whose deafness cut him off from the immortal sounds he was giving to
is played in the film by Gary Oldman, who at first seems an unlikely choice:
Too small, too driven, too insinuating.
we see that he is right. He is a man on the edge of madness, obsessed with women,
even more obsessed with Karl (Marco Hofschneider), the young nephew he hopes to
turn into a prodigy. He wages a lifelong campaign of hate against Karl's
mother, Johanna (Johanna Ter Steege), telling his brother Caspar (Christopher
Fulford) she is a foul slut. The movie proposes an interesting explanation of
Beethoven's hatred of her and love for her son, one which sensible biographers
will question, but that fits perfectly with the terms of the story.
Johanna is, by default, one of the three most important women in Beethoven's
life, the other two are Countess Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), who
becomes his student and patron, and the older, wiser Countess Anna Maria Erdody
(Isabella Rossellini), who stands up to Beethoven after he has gone into court
to wrest young Karl away from Johanna, his mother.
the scenes with Giulietta we see Beethoven's status as the most sought-after
lion of the European musical scene; in his day, a great composer was the
equivalent of today's rock stars, swooned over and showered with attention. He
becomes the countess' piano teacher, but does not always play the game
according to her world's rules: "A mistake is nothing," he tells her,
"but the fact that you thump out the notes without the least sensitivity
to their meaning is unforgivable, and your lack of passion is unforgivable. I
shall have to beat you." She thinks he is teasing until he slaps her so
hard that tears well in her eyes.
scenes with the Rossellini character are among the best in the film, because
here he finds a haven from his debts, from his troubles with the law, from his
wars with his relatives, from his fawning admirers and mocking rivals. She sees
most clearly his curious obsession with young Karl, which takes an odd turn:
Beethoven stops composing entirely for five years in order to supervise Karl's
education as a music virtuoso, despite the boy's tearful pleas to be allowed to
become a soldier.
deafness is a subject through much of the film, including a precarious scene
where the Rossellini character leads him from the stage after he grows confused
during a public performance, and another in which he touches the wood of a
pianoforte to hear the music through his fingers. He tried desperately to
conceal his deafness, fearing it would destroy his livelihood, and on the
soundtrack Rose sometimes reproduces what he can hear: Low rumbles curiously
like the music of the whales.
is the fourth film by the young British director Bernard Rose, after
"Paperhouse" (1989), "Chicago Joe and the Showgirl" (1990)
and "Candyman" (1992). The first was a masterpiece, a haunting
fantasy about the secret mental worlds of children. The second, set in World
War II, was a fanciful recreation of a relationship between a GI and a British
girl, both living in their delusions. The third was about a legendary figure
said to haunt Chicago public housing projects. In all three films Rose shows a
remarkable gift for visualizing his themes: His films are stimulating to look
in the shopworn genre of the musical biopic, he makes everything new.
"Immortal Beloved" has clearly been made by people who feel Beethoven
directly in their hearts, and are not approaching him through a classroom or
historical setting. Beethoven writes to Schindler at one point, arguing:
"It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of
the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism." The
viewer of "Immortal Beloved" likewise has no choice, and for the same