THE STORY – Abandoned as a baby, Jon finds himself in prison on a manslaughter charge. He falls in love with prison guard Iro, unaware of their fateful connection.
THE CAST – Aliocha Schneider & Agathe Bonitzer
THE TEAM – Angela Schanelec (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
While not exactly numerous, modern film adaptations of ancient Greek classics have popped up now and again, often with great results (For proof, look no further than the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” their tune-filled take on Homer’s “The Odyssey”). But I don’t think I’ve seen a Greek myth adaptation that’s been quite so intriguing, mystifying, and downright weird as “Music,” German filmmaker Angela Schanelec’s personal vision of the Sophocles play “Oedipus Rex.”
In Greek myth and play, Oedipus is abandoned at birth in the hills by his father, Laius, who hopes to save him from the prophecy that the boy is eventually destined to kill him and marry his mother, Jocasta. The baby is adopted into royalty, but neither Oedipus nor his adoptive parents are aware of the curse, even as he grows to adulthood. But when the prophecies come true, Oedipus, in torment, plucks out his eyes.
In her previous nine films, Schanelec has developed an aesthetic that relies on elliptical storytelling punctuated with lengthy silences, so, unsurprisingly, she’s taken an unusual approach to Sophocles’ grisly drama. Just as an example, in adapting the play, which is so dialogue-centric, it’s telling that she places her first major exchange of dialogue just past the 30-minute mark in the film, with the first note of music (which is, after all, the film’s title) coming shortly thereafter.
Even though few words are spoken in the film’s first half-hour, don’t think for a moment that a story isn’t being told. The baby’s abandonment by his birth father is still there, but Oedipus, here named Jon (Aliocha Schneider), grows up to young adulthood within mere minutes. While standing on a hilltop, Jon is approached by a man named Julian (the Laius stand-in), who tries to kiss him, but Jon pushes him off the cliff, killing him. For his crime, he is sentenced to prison, where he falls in love with the prison warden Iro (Agathe Bonitzer), the Jocasta character, whom he later goes on to marry. Only then do the film’s first conversations begin.
There’s no getting around it — “Music” can sometimes be a very frustrating watch. If you’re expecting to see “Oedipus Rex,” watching minute after minute of slowly rolling fog and chirping birds can try anyone’s patience. In addition, when the story finally does kick in, the film gets even more confusing, as Schanelec has cast the film so that no character, except for Jon and his eventual daughter, ever ages. So when Jon confronts his real father, Laius, the young actor playing Laius remains ever youthful, even though decades have passed in the story.
So, yes, there are obstacles along the way in “Music” and conventions that the viewer must figure out for themselves. But once you let go of your altered expectations and allow Schanelec to take you where she wants to go, “Music” can be a very satisfying ride. Happily, she dispenses with Sophocles’ eye-gouging in favor of something much more grounded and hopeful. The blindness of Oedipus/Jon may still be there, but it is remedied in part by the grand entrance of the film’s title character.
Music’s introduction into the film may be late in coming, but by the time we reach the third act, where Schanelec has begun to diverge from the play’s plotline, it becomes a key character unto itself. As Jon becomes literally lost after losing his sight, his auditory senses heighten as music leads him back not only to his own sense of self but also to an unexpected bonding with his daughter, with whom she shares his musical duets (The songs by Canadian singer/songwriter Doug Tielli fit snugly both in the text of the film and in Schneider’s vocal range). As Jon looks back and ponders his fate, only music gives him hope, a welcome narrative shift that Schanelec completely earns.
With Schanelec’s eclectic style and sometimes confusing narrative choices, it may be a rough road for some audiences to reach the brighter third act of “Music.” Those who do, though, will be rewarded with the reaffirmation of just how powerful music can be to change the course of a life.