"He mooned me," Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) confesses to her persnickety engineer boyfriend, Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode), relating another day at the office with her new boss, Ludwig van Beethoven. This disclosure would be disconcerting enough if Beethoven's death didn't predate the expression (or at least its current usage) by about 140 years. But according to press notes for Agnieszka Holland's "Copying Beethoven," the soulful amanuensis and self-appointed emotional advisor to the great composer is a "fictional character based on actual persons." So she's as free to be as anachronistic as she wants to be.
Certainly Holland ("Europa, Europa," "Olivier, Olivier"), who directed
from a script by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson ("Ali,"
"Nixon") seems intent on bringing a 1980s women's studies department
sensibility to this 19th century tale of tortured artistry and
eleventh-hour sensitivity training. And for all its awe at the
composer's mad genius and black hole-like ability to suck the oxygen
from a room, the movie belongs to Anna, a girl with a dream in the days
before girls were allowed to have them.
The movie is intended as an account of the great composer's final years,
when deafness took his music in radical new directions not immediately
understood by his audiences. Profoundly lonely and angry about the
cruelty of his condition, Beethoven spent his last few years alone and
isolated. According to the film's producer-screenwriters, "the great
challenge in dramatizing the last years of Beethoven's life is that he
really had no one to talk to." Enter the young, beautiful, worshipful
and talented, but not too talented, Anna. She has come to Vienna to
study composition at a conservatory and enters Beethoven's life by way
of his publisher Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), who has asked the
conservatory to send along its brightest student to work as a copyist.
In what can only be interpreted as some kind of era-related snafu, the
conservatory sends a girl. The poor, abused Schlemmer, whose cancer has
at least spared him the agony of having to deal with the talent much
longer, dispatches Anna straight into the maw.
When Anna meets Ludwig, hearing loss has reduced him to wearing a
cone-like contraption strapped to his Graydon Carter wig. He's an
intimidating figure, all sturm und drang und ego, but Anna, all of 23,
has his number. Presenting him with her first musical transcription, she
explains that she's taken the liberty of correcting a couple of things
in advance. She knows he would have changed them eventually, because she
"understands his soul." Naturally, she secretly hopes that he'll soon
understand hers when she gets up the nerve to show him her work. In the
meantime, she's made to suffer remarks like, "A woman's composing is
like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you're
surprised to find it done at all."
The real Beethoven never said any such thing, of course. But a couple of
other people did. Samuel Johnson concocted the quip in honor of female
preachers, then Virginia Woolf adapted it to describe the prejudices
faced by women artists in "A Room of One's Own." In fact, Holland's
copyist recalls the book's hypothetical Shakespeare's sister _ only
where Woolf imagined a woman prevented from writing by the circumstances
of her gender and eventually killing herself, "Copying Beethoven"
imagines a girl whose adorably po-faced perseverance wins her the
respect and admiration of her hero, who eventually inspires her to dump
her fancy prig in order to pursue her dream.
Fine. But hasn't Ludwig suffered enough? Why drag him into this? It's
not just that the movie plays fast and loose with his biography,
inserting a nonexistent soul mate into his last, lonely days _ though
this is a new trend, apparently, as evidenced by the new, imaginary
biopic of Diane Arbus, "Fur," in which the unhappy photographer
discovers fleeting happiness with a made-up sideshow refugee (Robert
Downey Jr. in a Chewbacca costume) _ it reduces Beethoven to a moldy
clichÃ©. Harris reprises shades of Jackson Pollock to create a method
Ludwig, for whom the creative process is an extended physical effusion.
Like a 17th century Russell Crowe, he lumbers, bellows, smashes
offensive bad art with a single smack of his cane. He teases the
barwench, torments the neighbors and hideously oppresses his nephew Karl
(Joe Anderson), a pink-eyed weasel with a gambling problem, whom he
claims to adore.
Maybe because the relationship makes very little sense, the characters
seem as though they were put there to reflect the other's feelings. For
Anna, Beethoven is a screen on which to project her fantasies. For
Ludwig, Anna is a handy ear in which to funnel his loneliness and rage.
His reactions are so explosive, in fact, they require rack-zoom reaction
shots from Anna, who nonetheless stoically suffers her disappointment in
her hero's social skills and soldiers through the work. When the
doorknob-deaf Beethoven (though his hearing impairment appears to be
rather mercurial and selective) insists to Schlemmer's horror on
conducting the symphony himself, Anna steps in as ghost conductor.
Together, they bring the piece to an ecstatic chorale climax, at which
point an earthquake seems to hit the concert hall.
Shot by Ashley Rowe to look like a cross between a Vermeer retrospective
and a music video, "Copying Beethoven" is silly and misguided, if
reasonably entertaining for its charming lack of self-awareness, its
weakness for lines like "Loneliness is my religion!" and its
transcendently beautiful music.
Quasi-biopic about the composer's difficult final years is largely about his relationship with a fictional assistant
Joe Anderson in 'Copying Beethoven'