Biopics annoy me, especially ones about musicians. Even those that are largely lauded, like Control (2007), tend to cover too much ground, and they try so hard to associate certain events with specific pieces of music. I call these “milestone moments,” and they essentially posit that art can’t happen unless it collides with life.
It happens in The Doors (1991) on several occasions, like when “Love Her Madly” plays as Jim and Pam have yet another fight; she leaves while the song blares “don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door.”
It happens in Amadeus (1984), when Salieri remarks that the ghost-statue of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a manifestation of the composer’s just-deceased father.
If I find this narrative device tiresome, it’s because the relationship I’m really interested in is the one that artists have with their art. It can be a very complex coupling, and one that’s often a burden on the people surrounding the artist. It’s why Jim and Pam were fighting in the first place. It’s what made Mozart spend all day composing Don Giovanni instead of dealing with his father’s death.
That’s part of what draws me to Tous les matins du monde (1991) (tr. “All the Mornings of the World”). Alain Corneau’s film is ostensibly the story of a musician who lives over half his life in mourning. But the film does more than show us what his grief sounds like; it also forces us to contend with music itself as a potent entity. It’s the master these characters serve—at varying degrees of competence.
Do you feel anything?
Set in 17th-century France, Tous les matins du monde follows two central figures, Marin Marais and Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, who actually existed; the former was a Versailles court musician, the latter was a talented violist. The historical verity ends there.
The film is set up as one long flashback, narrated by an elderly Marais in the court’s music chamber, as he remembers his viol teacher Sainte-Colombe.
Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is your typical socially awkward, reclusive genius. If art can’t exist without an audience, Sainte-Colombe counts as one, and that’s good enough for him. After his wife dies, leaving him widowed with two daughters, he falls into a deep depression. He finds solace only when he locks himself up in a shed and plays his viol until his body begs him not to.
Young Marais (Guillaume Depardieu) is no genius at all. He’s certainly got skill and technique, but there’s no soul to his craft. “Do you feel anything?” Sainte-Colombe asks him during their first lesson, predicting that the young man will “earn a good living, your life will be surrounded by music, but you won’t be a musician.”
Tous les matins du monde is also about Marais’s redemption. As an older man (played by Gérard Depardieu), he sees himself as an imposter. He’s wealthy, dressed in gilded, frilly frocks, fashionably wigged, barely conducting the court musicians through his dull rondo, “Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève.” A cobbler’s son, he escaped his father’s trade through music, but it wasn’t enough. He sought fame as a young lad, and it turned out to be hollow. He’s still no musician; realizing his viol master was right is more painful than losing a loved one.
What Words Can’t Say
The movie makes the argument that music speaks where words fail, and it gets there with very little dialogue. It lets music share the negative space your contemplations usually inhabit during a film.
In one scene, Sainte-Colombe watches his young daughters sing a sorrowful air. The room is dimly lit—a choice Corneau makes throughout—and the camera zeroes in on the girls singing, then cuts to Sainte-Colombe. This goes on for a minute before another word is said. In that time, the haunting song sets the scene’s tone. You inevitably begin to wonder what the characters are thinking. The girls look to their father, eager to please him. He reciprocates with a melancholy expression, giving in to either the minor melody or his lingering depression. It’s the sole time they get to communicate with him in the only language he’s able to use with any finesse.
Later, when young Marais auditions for Sainte-Colombe for the first time, we get to peer in at their curious and telling dynamics.
Marais improvises on the “Folie d’Espagne” while Sainte-Colombe and his daughters, Madeleine and Toinette (both about Marais’s age), watch. In his bright red shirt, Marais is easily the most ostentatious and colorful person in the drab Sainte-Colombe home. He keeps looking at his frets, as if he isn’t completely sure of himself. Going into the second variation of the piece’s theme, he looks out, not staring at anything in particular. He’s concentrating to get it right.
By the final variation, he swings his hair to the rhythm, but it’s for show. It’s what emoting is supposed to look like, but it isn’t authentic.
Toinette, the youngest daughter, is rapt with the handsome Marais. She watches him but doesn’t listen to him. Madeleine, who’s inherited her father’s innate musicality, is paying close attention. As he wraps up his improvisation, she squints, like she finds his choices odd, or maybe worth mulling over.
Sainte-Colombe, for his part, looks away the whole time, even closing his eyes. He’s listening and searching, not paying heed to showiness. As Marais closes in on the final variation, Sainte-Colombe actually starts to look a little irritated.
This scene sets up a few things: Marais isn’t capable of any real depth when he plays, and Sainte-Colombe is on to him; Toinette crushes on him; and Madeleine, despite her attraction to Marais, is listening carefully because she knows what to listen for. Immediately after Marais’s audition, Madeleine’s head is down; she’s worried, expecting that her father is about to refuse to take Marais on as a student.
When he does, Toinette begs him to let Marais play one of his own compositions. To be honest, it isn’t a particularly good piece, but at least it’s his. When he plays, Madeleine finally cracks a smile. She knows Marais’s gotten through. Sure enough, Sainte-Colombe tells him to return in a month for his first lesson.
The Sound of Regret
It bears mentioning that the viol is unlike other conventional string instruments. While the violin, viola, cello and double bass have four strings and can only play two notes simultaneously, the viol has six or seven strings (it’s said Sainte-Colombe added the 7th), and it can play full chords because of its flatter bridge.
Like all string instruments, the viol mimics the human voice. So playing one is really like singing—or, for Sainte-Colombe, speaking. It replaces much of the dialogue we’d expect from a movie, rendering the viol nearly omnipresent (or even, as Sainte-Colombe puts it, “not quite human”). That supernatural quality is impossible to ignore in a few areas.
It’s worth mentioning here that the viol pieces in the film’s soundtrack are all performed by a violist named Jordi Savall. As the film unfolds, Savall plays each character differently. He’s usually light and detached as Marais, but morose and intense as Sainte-Colombe.
Once Madeleine and Marais fall in love, however, these tones shift. A montage following their affair unfolds to “Le Badinage” (translation: “playful banter”), a piece composed by Marais. Playing as Marais, Savall now is surprisingly meditative. Any actual banter between the two characters is willfully taken over by the viol. The piece’s jittery theme suggests fun, but its minor key doesn’t quite let us commit to the pleasantries without a touch of sadness.
Almost predictably, Marais leaves Madeleine for the splendor of Versailles. But he’d unknowingly impregnated her, and when she gives birth to a stillborn baby, she gives in to a deep despondency. Many years later, on the verge of dying from her depression, she asks Marais to return and play the piece he’d composed for her when they were in love.
When they finally meet, he’s older, fatter, and arrogant. She musters up the strength to tell him to shut up and play. The piece is called “La Rêveuse,” or “The Dreamer,” because Marais couldn’t help but idealize Madeleine with such an empty sentiment. Still, it’s the sentiment he reserved for her, and it’s what she wants to hear before ultimately offing herself in the tragic scene that immediately follows, while “The Dreamer” continues to play. “More slowly,” she instructs him just before he starts. It isn’t clear if she’s drawing it out or if that’s really how she likes it. Either way, it speaks to her.
And finally, there’s Sainte-Colombe’s “Tombeau des regrets”—“Tomb of Sorrows”—an opus he composes just after his wife dies. We hear bits of it throughout the movie, mostly when he’s alone in the shed. It certainly delivers on the title; the main tune, “Les Pleurs,” or “Tears,” is a perfect stand-in for the anguish Sainte-Colombe can’t shake. Because the film gives us the time to absorb the music, we can feel his pain, and sometimes even invoke our own.
During one of Sainte-Colombe’s shed sessions, the ghost of his wife appears to him as he plays. The first time it happens, it’s utterly heartbreaking. His eyes light up as he sees her, but she motions to him to pay no mind and keep playing. She sits down, rests her head on her hand and listens. Tears racing down his cheeks, he finishes the piece and silently wails with his head down. When he looks up again, she’s gone.
It’s a moment of pure cinema, and it’s also grief itself.
Waking the Dead
As his viol master, Sainte-Colombe tries to teach Marais what music really is and where to find it. He tells him to listen to the painter’s brushstrokes, to the wind’s murmur, to a young child relieving himself on the side of the road. But Marais just doesn’t get it. Not as a young lad, anyhow. Only much later does it begin to make sense.
Knowing that Sainte-Colombe is going to die soon, Marais pays him one last visit. Their exchange is surprisingly amicable.
“So, you’ve discovered that music is not for kings,” Sainte-Colombe says.
“Yes,” Marais responds, “I discovered that it’s for God.”
But he’s still wrong. It isn’t for God, the ears, gold, glory, or anything tangible and human. Marais, exasperated, is about to give up.
“I don’t know anymore,” he says. “Maybe it’s better left for the dead.”
“You’re getting warm,” Sainte-Colombe tells him, grabbing his hand.
Marais begins to glean from his own regrets: music is for the dead, for the shadow of children, to soften the sound of a cobbler’s hammering, for the unborn, with no breath or light.
Satisfied with Marais’s reflections, Sainte-Colombe suggests they play from the “Tomb of Sorrows,” because, he says, “it can wake the dead.”
They play, and Marais’s recollection of the duet spills over to his present-day narration in the king’s music chamber, among tearful musicians. In the distant end of the room, light streaming in from the window, Sainte-Colombe’s specter appears.
“I’m proud to have had you as a student,” he tells Marais. “Would you play that song my daughter loved?”
The film ends on that note.
A Jake Eberts Epilogue
In 1998, during one of my film studies classes, producer Jake Eberts was invited to give a lecture, after which he premiered The Education of Little Tree. Though the film didn’t do very well at the box office, it had its moments. Near the end, the character of Little Tree receives a letter from his grandmother, announcing to him that she’s planning to commit suicide. The scene then cut to an overhead shot of a jagged mountainside, which made me weep.
I couldn’t understand why that pastoral image had me sobbing, so I asked Eberts about it during the Q&A, describing that particular scene.
“What makes audiences emotionally engage with the material to the point of crying?” I said.
He didn’t hesitate.
“Music,” he told me, saying it again, “music.”
Years earlier, when I first saw Tous les matins du monde in a theater, I remember looking around me when the movie ended, and seeing the entire audience in tears, including my father.
I have no idea if any of what happened in Tous les matins du monde is true, but on the subject of music, its truth is unshakable.