Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Immortal Beloved

Lowdown: Tracking down Beethoven's secret lover.
I saw 1994’s Immortal Beloved several times till now, but all these several times were concentrated into the four days I had its laserdisc rented. Back then, 1995-1996, quality contents was hard to find and laserdisc was pretty much the only option. Indeed, quality was so hard to find that when I put my hands on a laser I watched it again and again. The habit probably developed my skills at picking up cinematic queues rather than simply concentrating on the plot; in the case of Immortal Beloved it helped me enjoy the great music that was wrapped in an otherwise undeservedly ordinary film.
Immortal Beloved sets out to sensationalize the story of composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s life; it obviously attempts to achieve what Amadeus has done before. The sensation comes in the shape of the angle Immortal Beloved takes: instead of simply telling us Beethoven’s life story, it presents us with a mystery. We join things as Beethoven (Gary Oldman) dies to learn that he left his entire estate to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved”; that sets off a search by his old time friend Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé) to find the identity of said beloved. Schindler goes from one ex lover to another in an attempt to gather clues and solve the mystery, in the process exposing us to the complicated person that Beethoven was through a series of flashbacks. We learn Beethoven was a rather tormented figure: tormented by his father, a torment to his surroundings, and a torment to himself as the musician grew deaf.
The thing that annoys me the most about Immortal Beloved is that it never seems to have bothered asking itself why it needed to sensationalize Beethoven’s life in the first place. By looking at my own life I realize that telling the straight story of people’s lives without an angle to it could be a rather boring affair, but going to the other extreme creates an incredible story (in the bad sense of the word, as in lacking credibility). Indeed, history does not see eye to eye with the film: While the film presents us with a happy ending, the reality is we don’t know who Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved was. Did we ever need to know?
The makers of Immortal Beloved will have to excuse me, but I am of the opinion Beethoven’s life story could have been told with a straight face. After all, the greatest thing about Beethoven is his musical legacy; surely they could have turned that into the film’s focus instead of copying Amadeus? Indeed, the movie does make an attempt to impress with the music: Beethoven's most famous musical pieces are thrown throughout the film, performed quite well under the supervision of the late George Solti. As it is, the music is the best thing about Immortal Beloved; it's a pity it wasn't allowed to be the main event it should have been.
Otherwise, what we have on our hands is a film made of cliche scenes, filled with dimension-less cliche characters, and driven by a plot that is as lively as roadkill.
Best scene: A young Beethoven runs away from his father for a session of night swimming to the tune of the 9th. Probably the best scored piece of film ever (and I'm not saying this lightly), I cannot avoid being moved by this scene and the evidence it provides for music overpowering an otherwise mundane affair.
Technical assessment: I could only get Immortal Beloved on DVD, and sadly this DVD seems to suffer from a very outdated transfer. It feels as if the laserdisc's original transfer, perhaps even an analog one, was used here. The sound is very ordinary too, although the music is well rendered (I recommend the soundtrack CD; it's stereo compared to the DVD's 5.1 presentation, but it's also uncompressed).
Overall: I have a problem rating Immortal Beloved. As a film it's a 2 out of 5 stars film. But the music, oh the music! On a personal level, it lifts things up to the realm of 3.5 stars effort.

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