Chopin on the Silver Screen
no-image, Chopin on the Silver Screen
A saccharine show-off? Passionate revolutionary? Eternal schoolboy? Or perhaps a frustrated neurotic? In each of the four films based on Chopin's life, we get a completely different image of the composer. Chopin is likely to remain true only through his music
La Note Bleue
Chopin: Desire of Love
Piotr Adamczyk in "Chopin: Desire of Love", source: Chopin Express
The 1945 Hollywood film "Song to Remember" certainly can't serve as a historical reference. In this movie, Chopin must go into exile after he abruptly cuts a performance short when the Tsar's Governor Nowosilców appears on the scene. His companion on the voyage to Paris is Professor Elsner, nothing short of a "good soul" who, by way of looking after his pupil, confronts George Sand. The writer would like to have Fryderyk all to herself and sneakily takes him to Mallorca. Chopin breaks his friendship with Elsner. He doesn't make peace with Elsner until he's on his deathbed, where, incidentally, he is looked after by his former love from Warsaw, Konstancja Gładkowska! This American flub is salvaged by the acting skills of Paul Muni (Elsner) and the statuesque Merle Oberon, who bears a greater resemblance to Marlene Dietrich than to George Sand. Chopin, played by the Oscar-nominated Cornel Wilde, is depicted as a heartbreaker along the lines of Rock Hudson, with as much character as a lover boy from a low-budget melodrama. There's no lack of ridiculous scenes, such as the one presenting Chopin and Liszt carrying on a conversation while simultaneously playing the Polonaise in A flat major on two pianos.
The Polish super-production from 1951 entitled "Chopin's Youth" (Młodość Chopina, directed by Aleksandra Forda) is dedicated to Chopin the revolutionary. The film was made at the zenith of Stalinism and yet, it manipulates the viewer in such a way as to avoid inspiring anti-Soviet sentiment. Here, the young Fryderk stands up in defence of baton-wielding peasants, while the conspiracy that was intended to bring on the November Uprising against Russia is presented as a movement for worldwide revolution; the sounds of the Revolutionary Etude are on the soundtrack, along with the National Hymn and the Marseillaise. Still, the film has stood the test of time. From the historical perspective, it's a one-stop resource that illustrates the conflict between the classicism and romanticism. It's full of famous historic figures (from Prince Czartoryski to Paganini), but it retains its tempo, it's wonderfully shot and excellently acted. Czesław Wołłejko resembles the Chopin we know from his portraits. He has the right grace and the customary flash in his eye, which allows us to believe in the truth of his portrayal. He's accompanied by a great cast, including Aleksandra Śląska in the role of his beloved Konstancja. The scene in which she sings a Mozart aria (borrowing the voice of the great soprano Stefania Woytowicz) is a priceless memento. And when Wołłejko sits at the piano, we hear the playing of the winner of the First Prize in the 1949 Competition, Halina Czerna-Stefańska.
The 1991 film "Impromptu", directed by James Lapine, presents Chopin as a charming "eternal schoolboy": he faints when George Sand's husband challenges him to a duel. Could it be any other way with Hugh Grant in the role? It's true that he doesn't have Chopin's nose: in fact he doesn't look like Chopin at all. Still, he fits into the role of the "romantic consumptive" perfectly – his grandiose gestures, such as the way he covers his mouth with each cough leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an aristocratic soul. The heroine of the film is an lovesick George Sand played by Judy Davis, who pursues his reciprocation of her love. This portrait of the lives of renowned artists (de Musset, Delacroix and Liszt), who used to meet at the residence of the Princess d'Antan, is an example of light, witty costume cinematography à la James Ivory. The unpretentious humour guarantees that there is not a moment of boredom in the film. The Poland of "Impromptu" is expressed only through George Sand's clothing - in a dress as red as the flag, as Liszt's wife remarks with a smirk. And then there's the music, performed by Emanuel Ax and Philippe Entremont.
In the same year, Andrzej Żuławski filmed "La Note Bleue", a picture that also portrays Chopin in the company of his fellow artists, but in an entirely different way. Its message is based on the idea of art as both a curse and a cure for its creators. Chopin is a prime example of this, caught between George Sand and her daughter Solange, who are both battling for his love. The other characters include prima donna Pauline Viardot, the painter Delacroix and the sculptor Clesinger. They make an effort to work, but the banality of the everyday, filled with suffering broken up with momentary passions, often proves unbearable. Chopin's piano isn't tuned, the salon is a mess. Viardot sings Rosina's Cavatina in the kitchen while she's cutting a chunk of meat… Chopin is played by Janusz Olejniczak, Competition laureate in 1970, whose resemblance to the composer was astonishing. He plays Chopin as a tragic, frustrated figure. His face is like a mask and he seems absent. He continuously ponders on music, even in general conversation. Sand's maternal affections (depicted by Marie France Pisier) don't provide him happiness or fulfilment. The same is true of Sophie Marceau's Solange. His sickness is devastating: when he composes the famous Larghetto, blood drips onto the keys…
The most recent film based on the composer's life, entitled "Chopin: Desire of Love" (Chopin. Pragnienie miłości, 2002, dir. Jerzy Antczak), didn't serve its purpose, in spite of its scope. It presented a respectable, academic biography that rubbed against the boundary of kitsch – oh, those weeping willows in the distance! Piotr Adamczyk is a strangely unsympathetic Chopin, who just doesn't fit in with the rest of the film. He's just as his biographers describe: reserved, neurotic, manly, ethereal, serious and playful in one scene after the next. But he acts like he's reciting a well-prepared lesson.
Author: Jacek Melchior, October 2010
The article comes from the Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.
View the audition recitals online at chopin2010.pl/en/competitions/xvith-chopins-competition.html
Other articles of interest in Chopin Express No. 11:
"Surveying the Jury" by Emma Baker