"He mooned me," Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) confesses to her persnicketyengineer boyfriend, Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode), relating another dayat the office with her new boss, Ludwig van Beethoven. This disclosurewould be disconcerting enough if Beethoven's death didn't predate theexpression (or at least its current usage) by about 140 years. Butaccording to press notes for Agnieszka Holland's "Copying Beethoven,"the soulful amanuensis and self-appointed emotional advisor to the greatcomposer is a "fictional character based on actual persons." So she's asfree to be as anachronistic as she wants to be.
Certainly Holland ("Europa, Europa," "Olivier, Olivier"), who directedfrom a script by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson ("Ali,""Nixon") seems intent on bringing a 1980s women's studies departmentsensibility to this 19th century tale of tortured artistry andeleventh-hour sensitivity training. And for all its awe at thecomposer's mad genius and black hole-like ability to suck the oxygenfrom a room, the movie belongs to Anna, a girl with a dream in the daysbefore 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 immediatelyunderstood by his audiences. Profoundly lonely and angry about thecruelty of his condition, Beethoven spent his last few years alone andisolated. According to the film's producer-screenwriters, "the greatchallenge in dramatizing the last years of Beethoven's life is that hereally had no one to talk to." Enter the young, beautiful, worshipfuland talented, but not too talented, Anna. She has come to Vienna tostudy composition at a conservatory and enters Beethoven's life by wayof his publisher Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), who has asked theconservatory to send along its brightest student to work as a copyist.In what can only be interpreted as some kind of era-related snafu, theconservatory sends a girl. The poor, abused Schlemmer, whose cancer hasat least spared him the agony of having to deal with the talent muchlonger, dispatches Anna straight into the maw.
When Anna meets Ludwig, hearing loss has reduced him to wearing acone-like contraption strapped to his Graydon Carter wig. He's anintimidating figure, all sturm und drang und ego, but Anna, all of 23,has his number. Presenting him with her first musical transcription, sheexplains that she's taken the liberty of correcting a couple of thingsin advance. She knows he would have changed them eventually, because she"understands his soul." Naturally, she secretly hopes that he'll soonunderstand hers when she gets up the nerve to show him her work. In themeantime, she's made to suffer remarks like, "A woman's composing islike a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you'resurprised to find it done at all."
The real Beethoven never said any such thing, of course. But a couple ofother people did. Samuel Johnson concocted the quip in honor of femalepreachers, then Virginia Woolf adapted it to describe the prejudicesfaced by women artists in "A Room of One's Own." In fact, Holland'scopyist recalls the book's hypothetical Shakespeare's sister _ onlywhere Woolf imagined a woman prevented from writing by the circumstancesof her gender and eventually killing herself, "Copying Beethoven"imagines a girl whose adorably po-faced perseverance wins her therespect and admiration of her hero, who eventually inspires her to dumpher fancy prig in order to pursue her dream.
Fine. But hasn't Ludwig suffered enough? Why drag him into this? It'snot just that the movie plays fast and loose with his biography,inserting a nonexistent soul mate into his last, lonely days _ thoughthis is a new trend, apparently, as evidenced by the new, imaginarybiopic of Diane Arbus, "Fur," in which the unhappy photographerdiscovers fleeting happiness with a made-up sideshow refugee (Robert Downey Jr. in a Chewbacca costume) _ it reduces Beethoven to a moldyclichÃ©. Harris reprises shades of Jackson Pollock to create a methodLudwig, for whom the creative process is an extended physical effusion.Like a 17th century Russell Crowe, he lumbers, bellows, smashesoffensive bad art with a single smack of his cane. He teases thebarwench, torments the neighbors and hideously oppresses his nephew Karl(Joe Anderson), a pink-eyed weasel with a gambling problem, whom heclaims to adore.
Maybe because the relationship makes very little sense, the charactersseem as though they were put there to reflect the other's feelings. ForAnna, Beethoven is a screen on which to project her fantasies. ForLudwig, Anna is a handy ear in which to funnel his loneliness and rage.His reactions are so explosive, in fact, they require rack-zoom reactionshots from Anna, who nonetheless stoically suffers her disappointment inher hero's social skills and soldiers through the work. When thedoorknob-deaf Beethoven (though his hearing impairment appears to berather mercurial and selective) insists to Schlemmer's horror onconducting the symphony himself, Anna steps in as ghost conductor.Together, they bring the piece to an ecstatic chorale climax, at whichpoint an earthquake seems to hit the concert hall.
Shot by Ashley Rowe to look like a cross between a Vermeer retrospectiveand a music video, "Copying Beethoven" is silly and misguided, ifreasonably entertaining for its charming lack of self-awareness, itsweakness for lines like "Loneliness is my religion!" and itstranscendently beautiful music.