Winter, 1942-1943. Sophie Vasseur, brought up in poverty by her single mother, suffers like most Parisians from the hardships and privations of the German occupation. A pianist, this demure, taciturn girl is hired as an accompanist by the beautiful, talented singer Irene Brice. Admired by the public, Irene is adored by her husband, Charles Brice, a rich businessman collaborating with the German occupiers and the Vichy regime. Dazzled by the luxury and comfort in which the Brices live, fascinated by Irene's grace and kindness, Sophie soon goes to live with her employers and eventually learns the couple's intimate secrets. Flattered by Irene's trust, she tries to merit it by concealing the love affair between the singer and Jacques Fabert, a pionneer member of the French Resistance. She does harbor some resentment, though. For while everything succeeds for Irene, her Accompanist is expected to serve in obscurity...
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Romane Bohringer is about to create a stir. This plain, baleful-looking young French actress will soon be seen in two very different films, including Cyril Collard's "Savage Nights," which was shown at this year's New Directors/New Films festival and is to begin its commercial run early next year. Her Cesar-winning performance in that film, as the wild, rebellious teen-age girlfriend of a man with AIDS, could not be less like her demure title role in "The Accompanist," the urbane new film by Claude Miller opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Both performances reveal Miss Bohringer as a demanding, furiously intense screen presence, someone who can behave quite passively and still take up all the oxygen in a room. She has a raw, desperate quality that seems doubly startling against the sophisticated context of "The Accompanist," in which a veneer of elegance shields the principals from most forms of rude reality.
Beginning late in 1942 in occupied France, "The Accompanist" devotes center stage to Irene Brice (Elena Safonova), a ravishing singer who is a great favorite with the Vichy set. But the glum, silent young woman by Irene's side commands a different kind of attention. Originally hired as a pianist for Irene's rehearsal sessions, Sophie Vasseur (Miss Bohringer) soon becomes a fixture in Irene's household. Cautious and watchful, well attuned to all the nuances of Irene's professional and romantic lives, Sophie glories in her employer's triumphs while wondering when her own moment in the spotlight will come.
"The Accompanist," adapted by Mr. Miller and Luc Beraud from a novel by Nina Berberova, would be more like "All About Eve" if it were made with anything bolder than Mr. Miller's smoothly contemplative sensibility. As it is, Sophie's Eve Harrington thoughts remain unspoken, delivered to the audience in voice-over while Ms. Bohringer gazes dutifully at Ms. Safonova's lovely Irene. For all her silent frustration, Sophie cannot settle the question of just how actively she ought to assert herself. Her inaction can be seen in wider terms, given the wartime setting and France's larger paralysis during the German occupation.
The third principal in "The Accompanist" is Charles Brice, Irene's husband, a businessman (played by Richard Bohringer, Romane's father). Rich and successful, determined to stay that way, the feisty Charles is sustained by Irene's glamorous career just as surely Sophie is. Charles is the film's most volatile character, the one who goes from idly dropping Marshal Petain's name to realizing it is time to pack the Vuitton luggage and personally carry it over the Pyrenees.
Charles is also the story's main victim, being no match for either Sophie's silences or Irene's treacherous wiles. "Is being a woman so difficult?" he finally asks Sophie, who has become everybody's confidante. "Yes, I think so," she answers, very much in earnest. Having studied Irene's travails and betrayals so intimately, Sophie knows whereof she speaks.
Although Mr. Miller (whose earlier films include the 1981 "Garde a Vue") divides "The Accompanist" informally into three sections, one devoted to each of the main characters, it is Sophie who quietly burns a hole in the screen. Catapulted from the deprivation of wartime life to the sumptuousness of Irene's sheltered existence, Sophie quite literally swoons; soon afterward, her first experience of a grand late-night dinner with Irene's admirers makes her physically ill. The film is most striking in watching Ms. Bohringer subtly absorb the lessons of Irene's world and try, not always successfully, to make them her own.
"The Accompanist" is fashionably open-ended in describing this process. Life is said to be passing Sophie by as the film begins, and it is still passing her by when the story is over. A contrived shipboard romance, as Sophie and the Brices flee to England, is never as affecting or credible as it's meant to be, but "The Accompanist" is not the sort of film that is watched for plot. Its chief pleasures are atmospheric, thanks to the keenly observed details of Irene's cosseted existence and the cascade of beautiful music that makes up the score.
The soundtrack incorporates selections by Mozart, Strauss, Berlioz, Schumann and numerous others, making this one more recent French film (along with "Un Coeur en Hiver" and "Tous les Matins du Monde") in which music supplies an extra dimension of sensual delight. The audience will be as overwhelmed by Irene's recitals (with voice supplied by Laurence Monteyrol) as Sophie is herself, as the music combines with the imagery of this radiant, alluring singer draped in white satin and flanked by flowers.
The film, which has its denouement in an English pub called the Angel, takes Sophie well beyond the surface of Irene's glamour. But the memory of Irene's music stays with her protegee long after the bloom is off the rose. It will stay with the audience, too.
© Janet Maslin, "The New York Times", December 23, 1993
Source : movies.nytimes.com