Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Late Quartet


The Fugue string quartet has been performing together for 25 years, and consists of First Violin (Mark Ivanir, a Ukrainian-Israeli with a lot of supporting film credits), Second Violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Viola (Catherine Keener) and Cello (Christopher Walken). Cello is the heart of the ensemble, the oldest of them, the man that keeps them all together and on the straight and narrow. Viola and Second are married, and have an aspiring Solo Violin daughter (Imogen Poots, and have you given any thought to changing that name, darling?).

But Cello is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and will soon have to retire. This revelation serves as the catalyst for bringing a lot of buried issues to the surface. Viola thinks it might be best if they just pack it all in, unable to imagine carrying on without the stable center that Cello provides. Cello is having none of it, and insists he can be replaced by Nina (Nina Lee, who puts in a brief appearance at the end, and is a real cellist with the Brentano Quartet, who played all the real music here). He negotiates with Wallace Shawn, whose trio Nina is currently playing with, and is rebuffed.

Meanwhile, First begins an affair with the much younger Solo, which greatly upsets Viola and completely stuns Second. Cello tells First he must give her up, which he refuses to do. But Solo has a big surprise for him … which I won’t get into. And Solo has her own issues with Viola, over lack of parenting while Viola was out of town for seven months of the year. And then Second makes a big mistake by having a one-nighter with Flamenco Dancer (Flamenco Dancer? Where does she fit into the quartet?) and Viola throws him out …

Bit of a soap opera, right? Still, in the hands of these actors and with an intelligent script, it all works very well. But the biggest issue, to my mind, and the reason I’ve been referring to these people by their instruments, is the one that is unique to a tight-knit musical groups like this, which is Second’s simmering resentment at First and the others for being second chair all these years. And at First for being such a controlling person, not letting them break out and explore, as Second believes they should be doing.

I thought about this a lot. Where I’m coming from is the perpetual second-chair French horn in my high school band. Three years of sitting beside my friend Phil Richie and listening to him do all the solo bits. And believe me, I was fine with it. I did not have the musical drive to practice more, I didn’t want the first chair, didn’t want to stick out doing the solo bits. I was happy.

But not Philip Hoffman. To these people, music is their life. Everything else takes a back seat (or maybe second chair), including family. And Second may believe he is as good a fiddle player as First is, maybe even better … but to my mind, that’s not the most important thing. For a certain sort of person, being the leader is a must. They can’t sit in the second chair. They must be either a soloist, or the first chair. Walken may be the spiritual center of the group, but Ivanir is the musical leader. Just look at a major symphony orchestra. There is a vast gulf between the first violin, known as the concertmaster, and the second chair. And, for that matter, all the other massed violin players. You know all those others are very good with their axe or they wouldn’t be playing with the philharmonic, but only one makes concertmaster. In my opinion, he (it is almost always a man) is the one who has just that little bit more drive, ambition, dedication. Skill? Yes, but that’s not the only thing. If Second had had what it takes to be First, he wouldn’t have planted his butt in that second chair for twenty-five years, no matter what other excuses he comes up with for his situation. My opinion, anyway.

The performances here are all just terrific. It is wonderful, in particular, to see Chris Walken playing something other than a psychopath or other very weird character. Here he is calm and controlled, very human, the best in a lot of stand-out performances. Now, I’m not saying I want him to stop playing psychopaths, he’s one of the best psychopaths the cinema has ever seen. But it’s nice to see him essay something very different, just as it is always a hoot to see him dance.

And for once, the ending was satisfying. I’m very leery of emotional final scenes with a dramatic announcement on stage, but this one moved me. Walken handles it with grace and dignity, and so do all the rest. And so the old falls by the wayside, to make room for the new talent … Bittersweet, but life, and music, goes on.