Every 15 minutes, according to a title at the end of director Anne Fontaine’s latest film, someone on earth plays Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.” It’s a largely unprovable statement that is nonetheless borne out anecdotally by the familiarity of the tune, which crops up so frequently in concerts, movies, TV shows, commercials, dance recitals and at least one iconic 1980s ice skating routine, that it’s close to becoming sonic wallpaper. It’s a pleasant surprise then, that “Boléro,” Fontaine’s gently deconstructed Ravel biopic, while running long and never wholly airing out the stuffiness of “tortured genius” genre, does at minimum make us appreciate the music anew — its rustling snare drums, its snake-charmer woodwinds, its revving, roundabout rhythms.
Indeed Fontaine’s screenplay, co-written with Claire Barré, persuasively suggests that whatever ambivalence a modern viewer may feel toward the composition, Ravel, whose quiet peculiarities are sensitively underplayed by Raphaël Personnaz, to some extent shared it. Most of the film takes place in the six years of procrastination and prevarication between his accepting the commission for a new ballet from choreographer Ida Rubenstein (Jeanne Balibar) — a woman of turbans and cigarette holders and theatrical exhortations that the music be “Carnal! Bewitching! Erotic!” — and its first performance.
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During this period, Ravel was already established as France’s foremost living composer. But he was also a man forever forgetting his dress shoes, an unworldly artist whose diffidence masked a singleminded faith in his own perfectionist process, with a tendency toward self-criticism so exacting that the critiques of others did not mean that much. Emerging after “Bolero’s” 1928 debut to be buffeted by waves of adulation, Ravel acknowledges to his friend Cipa (Vincent Perez) that it will probably become his masterwork, adding dryly, “Pity it lacks music.”
Artfully draped in Christophe Beaucarne’s handsomely antiqued photography, Fontaine and editor Thibaut Damade use a looping structure, not unlike the circularity within the piece itself, to illustrate episodes from his life before and after “Boléro.” So Ravel’s five-time failure to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, his service in WWI and the death of his beloved mother (Anne Alvaro) all unfold as we’re also glimpsing his post-“Boléro” decline in health, when the undiagnosed neurological condition that would kill him less than a decade later caused increasing confusion and forgetfulness.
As to his personal life (about which not much is known for sure) the film posits a few close friendships, such as with pianist Marguerite Long (Emmanuelle Devos), and a decades-long love affair with Cipa’s sister, Misia (Doria Tillier), a socialite and arts patron modeled on the real-life Misia Sert. Here, Misia functions like a muse — even though Ravel insists he does not believe in them — and her many marriages to other men have the convenient effect of keeping her just out of reach. One of her spouses, on watching Ravel pine chastely after his wife, comments “Nothing reassures a husband like me more than a man like you,” a boorish observation that echoes some contemporary criticism of Ravel’s earlier works, which were regarded as too poised and precise, lacking passion, lacking sex.
But then Fontaine’s film does suggest that Ravel’s erotic imagination and his musical talent were fueled more by his almost ASMR relationship to sound than by fleshier, earthlier pursuits. He insists that his fall from a window in the wake of an early career setback was not a suicide attempt, he was just leaning out to hear the “Oriental melody” made by the wind through the shingles. And while he frequents a local brothel, the only visits we see are unlikely in their delicacy — during one such he pays a girl simply to pull on one of Misia’s discarded gloves slowly enough that he can hear the satin shucking onto her skin. But if some moments designed to illustrate the fineness of Ravel’s feeling — for Misia and for music — are overworked, there is compensation in an unusually convincing depiction of both the 99% perspiration and the 1% inspiration that are said to go into genius.
Ravel can be transported by the repetitive clanking on a factory floor, or the flutter of a fan, but “Boléro” does not supply some reductively simplistic explanation of how his most famous work came into being. He toiled and got stuck. He chased and was eluded. He tried and despaired, and all of it, or none it, made the difference. One moment, “Bolero” does not exist. The next, it simply does. That it then went on to eclipse him elicits, in Personnaz’ wry, sympathetic portrayal, some gentle pity for the man, who, at the end of his life, becoming ever more unmoored from a world to which he was only ever tenuously connected, hears a recording of “Bolero” and wonders with soft surprise, “Did I really write that? It wasn’t bad.”
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