A multi-layered allegorical brainteaser, “Music” reframes the Oedipus myth as a substitution cipher, swapping words and rearranging letters in an attempt to push a familiar text toward the far thresholds of abstraction. Both enigmatic in form and uncompromising in intent, the film is, by any standard definition, a dense and challenging work. Only, for good or ill, the project feels more like a self-challenge for director Angela Schanelec — a puzzle more edifying to create than to solve, an intricately crafted ship of Theseus in a bottle inviting muted admiration for the process.
Beginning and ending with neither title cards nor overture, “Music” courts a mythic register right from the start, opening on long shots of distant mountains covered in a fog that has probably never lifted since pre-Homeric times. The title itself takes on an ironic edge, given the near silence of the film’s opening act; until the first human voice rings out at the half-hour mark, and the first melody heard another thirty minutes later, we are left to navigate a rugged landscape captured in austere compositions.
Context clues tell us we’re in Greece, though a Greece more modern than contemporary. As in the films of Alice Rohrwacher, Schanelec builds out an intemporal near-past, filling the screen with cars and clothes from the day before yesterday, technology from the year just before you were born.
Eventually, a new child arrives and is just as soon picked up by a local medic and carried away from the natal home. Scrambling millennia of story beats — while reminding you that this is not your parents’ Oedipus — we next see the child held by his ankles while bathed in a riverbank, creating a connection with Achilles made literal when Schanelec reintroduces the now-grown boy via his swollen red heels.
Played with a pout by actor and musician Aliocha Schneider, our lead goes by Jon. Eventually he will speak, then, as the myth dictates, he will kill, then fall into love and matrimony with the one woman he really, really would have been better off not meeting — here she goes by Iro (Agathe Bonitzer). Mind you, this Jocasta analogue is not explicitly positioned as her husband’s mother. She is, instead, introduced as one of the all-female guards at the all-men’s prison where Jon ends up. Iro is also the first character to form a full sentence, and to introduce her later beau to the beauty of music.
This introduction of melody — much of it written by Canadian songsmith Doug Tielli and later performed by Schneider onscreen — marks Schanelec’s most lasting departure from her source myth, swapping the fatalism of Greek tragedy for a sentiment more common to American pop radio: That music might save your mortal soul. Still, don’t expect the deliberately abstruse film to build on the theme beyond the fact of pointing it out.
“Music” is a film of action without exposition, symbols without a cipher. The actors perform with dispassionate affects, speaking in a Brechtian distancing patter reminiscent of German epic theatre, while at the prison where Jon and Iro meet, the inmates are outfitted with cothurns, the elevated wooden sandals worn by Greek actors of antiquity. Indeed, as with the potpourri of source mythology, Schanelec follows no formal blueprint or cites any one muse, funneling a mix-and-match of artistic inspirations into a style let’s call “epic naturalism” — and if the term seems a contradiction, that very contradiction reflects the filmmaker’s rigorous conceptual project.
For Schanelec, every frame is a manifesto — a canvas to initially cover in layers of meaning that must then be peeled back and stripped down until nothing but the most spartan brushstrokes remain. No matter how outwardly anodyne, nearly every frame is a product of rigorous blocking and choreography, stamping each shot with a kind of Good Filmmaking Seal of Approval that makes the chasm between the film’s deliberateness and opacity all the more vast. The fact that both Schneider and Bonitzer are French, that Schanelec is German, and that the narrative is (very explicitly) set in a pre-Euro zone Greece does not seem like a happy accident, only good luck wrangling these floating signifiers into a more cohesive point.
This frustration is no doubt a part of Schanelec’s wider design, the open end-point of her plan to abstract Greek myths while embroidering them with hyper-specific embellishments. A pivotal suicide (no spoilers here, but, hey, the Sophocles play is more then 2,500 years old) sees the most potent expression of this formal approach. A fixed shot opens on a cliffside view of the sea, as a pair of human feet step into the frame. They linger in place, the wind blows, and a lizard crawls by, climbing right on to one of the feet. The feet finally step forward, disappearing into the abyss while the natural world continues, unoticing and unchanged.
The standalone shot, which lasts maybe a minute at most, is a stunner. The nearly two-hour film, which keeps a similar compositional bravado without the same (almost elemental) thematic clarity, is a tougher proposition. Jostled between the filmmaker’s caginess and hyper-specificity at all points, the erstwhile mythical figures eventually lose gravitas, falling back to earth as all too literal representations of Schanelec’s overdetermined style — and not much more.
“Music” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. Cinema Guild will release it at a later date.