Don’t Slam That Piano Lid! A Page-Turner’s Chilling Revenge

Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de Pages), from a screenplay by Mr. Dercourt and Jacques Sotty (in French with English subtitles), plays out—literally and figuratively—as a subtly seductive revenge drama in which classical piano music is featured far more in the foreground than in the background. Indeed, I’ve never seen a movie in this genre in which the actors perform all the fingering without any camera tricks, any cutaways or concealment. For that matter, I’ve never seen a musical movie in which one of the two major characters functions as the other’s page-turner.

The back story of this hitherto-obscure practice is as compelling as the revenge drama’s dénouement itself. Mélanie Prouvost (Julie Richalet) is first seen as a child pianist, the only child of small-town butchers Monsieur and Madame Prouvost (Jacques Bonnaffè and Christine Citti). Mélanie is her father’s pride and joy in particular: On the eve of her audition for the conservatory, he promises her that he will continue her lessons even if she fails the audition. But Mélanie shakes her head at the offer.

She begins confidently enough at the outset, but midway through her performance, she is distracted by the thoughtless rudeness of one of the judges, a pianist named Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), who turns away to give an autograph to a persistent admirer. Mélanie loses her concentration and thereby fails her audition. Without saying a word to her mother, she gets her coat and, as she walks through the outer auditorium, nearly slams a piano lid on the fingers of a practicing student, who pulls her hands away with a startled expression. Mélanie is thus shown to be a person to be reckoned with in the future.

When she gets home, she quietly closes her own piano for the last time and puts her small bust of Beethoven away in a closet. No tears, no recriminations: She remains self-possessed to a degree that prepares us for her remarkable implacability later on in life.

Ten years later, a grown Mélanie (Déborah François) is seen from a distance, walking toward us and a nearby doorway. We gradually learn that she is beginning an internship in a law office after graduating from high school with high honors. It then seems much more than a coincidence that she has actually applied to work in the law firm of Monsieur Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory), the wealthy husband of the concert pianist who had distracted her at the audition a decade before. Is this really an accident of fate, or part of a carefully spun web? The film doesn’t commit itself either way, and there are no inner monologues or stereotyped best-friend confidantes to clarify matters—just the unvaryingly pleasant half-smile of an attractive young woman who is used to being a loner. Occasionally, she uses her cell phone to communicate with her mother and father, whom she has always manipulated as a favored only child.

The point is that Mélanie never reveals her feelings to others. Hence, we are not surprised when she grasps an opportunity to end her internship and become a temporary governess for the Fouchécourts’ son, Tristan (Antoine Martyciow), who is also an aspiring child pianist. The stage is now set for all sorts of vengeful mischief to redress that childhood slight.

It soon becomes clear that the sensitively aging Ariane has no memory of the audition episode of a decade before. Indeed, when Ariane notices Mélanie’s interest in her rehearsals—to the point that Mélanie impulsively assumes the role of Ariane’s page-turner—she asks her if she has ever played the piano. Yet Mélanie never relaxes her pleasantly noncommittal demeanor, even when Ariane casually inquires why she gave it up.

Mr. Dercourt never uses sinister camera angles to communicate Mélanie’s obsession with the older woman. Instead, he frequently manages to enclose Mélanie and Ariane in the same frame—“like a cage,” in the director’s words, “in which two wild animals engage in extraordinary combat.”

Mr. Fouchécourt advises Mélanie at the outset that his wife has always suffered from paralyzing stage fright, and that Ariane has become even more fragile and vulnerable after an automobile accident that didn’t harm her physically but has wrecked her emotionally. One is never sure if Mélanie is at all moved to any feelings of pity for Ariane’s condition—especially when she begins making amorous advances toward her one-time nemesis.

It is also uncertain to what extent opportunistic improvisation plays a role in her subsequent maneuvers. In the director’s own words again, “I was surprised to discover how similar the mechanisms of suspense are to the techniques of writing music: they include the same ideas of tension/relaxation, slowing down and speeding up, cadences, variations in tempo, pauses, climaxes, etc.”

Ariane is part of a chamber-music trio that becomes unexpectedly involved in Mélanie’s intrigues. The violinist, Madame Onfray (Martine Chevallier), is immediately suspicious of her motivations in volunteering to be Ariane’s page-turner. And the cellist, Laurent (Xavier De Guillebon), is the victim of a bizarre accident after making an ill-advised, lecherous advance toward Mélanie.

Until the very end, we are unable to read in Mélanie’s exquisitely opaque countenance what she is really and truly feeling; but in the process, we get to hear a good deal of great music played (and misplayed). This should come as no surprise: Mr. Dercourt, a 42-year-old comparative newcomer to the cinema, has spent most of his career around music—first playing solo viola with the French Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1993, and then teaching viola and chamber music at the Strasburg Region National Conservatory.

Though many observers at the recent Cannes Film Festival were cool to what they perceived as improbable contrivances and coincidences in The Page Turner, I found myself enthralled by this savory blend of cinema, the most inclusive and comprehensive art, and music, the art to which all the other arts aspire. I was also enchanted by the performances of the actresses playing Mélanie, both in childhood (Ms. Richalet) and young womanhood (Ms. François, who was so memorable in Luc and Jean-Pierre Daredenne’s L’Enfant). And I was equally impressed by the burgeoning pathos of Ms. Frot’s Ariane.

All in all, I find myself more responsive to the malignancy in The Page Turner than in all the other recent, all too numerous excursions into the darker side of human nature. Call me inconsistent if you wish, but do see The Page Turner.

Cat’s Pajamas

Linda Hattendorf’s The Cats of Mirikitani turns out to be the kind of nonfiction film that tells a haunting story—one that no professional screenwriter would even dare to imagine. It’s made up of a series of seemingly casual images, and an amazing life that seemed almost fatally drawn to history’s injustices and catastrophes. Ms. Hattendorf first encounters Jimmy Mirikitani—an 80-year-old Japanese-American street artist—on the streets of Soho in the summer of 2001. Out comes her camera, and some heart-stopping background shots of the World Trade Center in all its overstated architectural arrogance just before the cataclysmic events of 9/11.

“The same old story,” mutters Jimmy in his heavily accented English, which requires subtitles. Toxic fumes from the site of the disaster induce him to accept Ms. Hattendorf’s offer of shelter in her apartment. Little do we suspect the full autobiographical resonance of his seemingly cynical remark. As we eventually learn, Jimmy was born in Sacramento, Calif., in the 20’s and taken back to Japan by his parents. So where in Japan did he grow up to young adulthood? Why, Hiroshima, of course. But when he reached draft age, he returned to California, because he wanted to be an artist, not a soldier. So after Pearl Harbor, he was interned in a desert detention camp along with his sister and other relatives, labeled as dangerous aliens. He was thus the victim of one of the worst abridgments of civil liberties and human rights in the history of our Republic. And then came the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, killing his parents and the rest of his family.

Throughout every one of his life’s misadventures, Jimmy remained a dedicated artist, though without much name recognition despite his innumerable drawings of irresistibly charismatic cats. With Ms. Hattendorf’s generous assistance, Jimmy finally makes the necessary connections to reconcile himself with history’s cavalier treatment of all his youthful aspirations. Ms. Hattendorf’s is truly and profoundly a “found film,” and it is deeply moving enough to be fondly remembered at year’s end—and long after. Don’t Slam That Piano Lid! A Page-Turner’s Chilling Revenge