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Maestro is a film you want to like, but almost can’t, because it tries too hard. It has a nice, original concept: Henri Renaud, an aspiring young actor who wants more than anything to be a star in conventional movies, instead lands a leading role in the latest opus of a renowned, but very artsy, auteur. Henri’s life will never be the same (his career is another story). This is played for comedy, but also for romance, satire, awkward coming of age, and idealistic homage. It’s a grab-bag not sure where it wants to go. That’s part of its charm, but also the exasperation the audience sometimes feels throughout the film.
The comedy part alone gets unwieldy. It’s good that director Léa Frazer lets us know that the film isn’t going to be all effete intellectualism. But the low-brow French style of comedy can get ham-fisted, like when the main character and his best friend (who also gets a part in the film-within-a-film) play ping-pong while strapped to chairs (and when one chair is broken and “repaired,” we know what’s going to happen to some other character later on). Other bits are too much like actors mugging it up for themselves more than for the audience.
Maestro is about the acting more than anything else. Pio Marmai as Henri is handsome and charming, and captures the personality of a young actor who’s well-meaning but still hard-driving. His penchant for trying to please trips him up, though we keep rooting for him. He’s like Joey Triviani in “Friends,” with less muscle but more soul.
His friend, Nico (Nicolas Bridet), is a conventional movie buddy, a partner in mischief who gets his friend into trouble (like the chair ping-pong) but also lends support when needed. He’s endearing, but also multiplies the puerile humor. We could identify with Henri more if he was adrift by himself, instead of constantly collaborating in wisecracks and gags.
The title refers to film-maker Cédric Rovère, played by Michael Lonsdale. He’s an imposing character in his understated way. When directing he’s soft-spoken, an elderly gentleman with a deceptively tentative manner. But a steely sensibility lurks underneath, capable of deciding on a gut instinct to cut out an actor’s role. He’s brilliantly played by Lonsdale, with an otherworldly Yoda side to him, a French classicist Yoda intoning 18th century texts.
The main dramatic element is that Rovère has to shoot his film on a very low budget. That accounts for some of the comic situations (like the broken-down hotel where the cast and crew are staying). There’s even a possibility the production may not be able to pay for the film stock to finish the movie. One reason for this plot point is to make audiences choke up in admiration for the “when-movies-were-movies” pre-digital sentiment. It also results in diverting, if heavy-handed, satire of frantic production assistants, though we get a sense of their dedication to a director who’s supremely detached from such mundane bothers.
Henri is at first befuddled by Rovère (Nico tends to be bored by him—as does the audience sometimes). But he learns things about acting and himself. The self-consciously lightweight performer will even be moved on occasion. To a degree this is another version of that French favourite: the unwashed masses finding enlightenment by immersing in classical culture.
What makes it more interesting is Henri’s infatuation with Gloria, a beautiful young actress in the shoot who’s a genuine fan of Rovère, and of all things cultural. Convincingly and sympathetically played by Deborah François, she’s a perfect gamine, but is more than that: an actress with a sense of vocation, and ambiguous feelings. Henri’s pursuit of Gloria evolves in a realistic, unmushy way, giving the film its backbone as well as its heart.
In general Maestro is a film of diamond-like moments that shine from a pile of more pedestrian rhinestones. Léa Frazer lets the actors do their thing. Otherwise her direction is just serviceable. Whatever visual pleasure there is comes from the French countryside where it was filmed.
Maestro has an interesting back-story. It’s based on the real encounter of an actor named Jocelyn Quivrin with director Eric Rohmer on his last film. Quivrin then wrote Maestro with Léa Frazer. He died at a young age, and a few years later Rohmer died (at a much riper age). Ms. Frazer completed the script and made the film as a tribute (as she announces in the credits). This real-life dimension may account for the film’s flaws but also its emotional authenticity. The flaws can irritate. But the film has cogent things to say about literature and cinema, life and acting, and artisanal movie-making vs. finance-and-tech-based production. Unexpectedly Maestro grows on you, and stays with you.
Production: Mandarin Films/Rézo Productions
Distribution: Rézo Films