Directed by Eugenio Mira
Starring Elijah Wood, John Cusack and Kerry Bishé
On general release in the UK from 19 September 2014
Like great poetry, thrillers are concerned with passion when it combusts or levitates, garnished with preposterousness
There ought to be a technical term for films made by film buffs for film buffs – and a society for their protection, as I suspect they are an endangered species. Some readers may recall a scene in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in which an assassination is timed to occur at the exact moment a musician clashes the cymbals in a concert broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. It is a clever idea, but only one plot twist among many. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano replays it over the course of an entire film, most of which observes the three Aristotelian unities, that is acted out on the stage of a concert venue.
It concerns a classical pianist, Tom Selznick (played by Elijah Wood), who went into early retirement years before the film begins, having failed to complete a public performance of La Cinquette, allegedly the most difficult piano composition in the world, written by his mentor, the recently deceased Patrick Godureaux. Now married to a film star, Selznick is lured out of self-imposed seclusion to do battle with his stage fright and perform the dreaded La Cinquette to a packed concert hall in downtown Chicago.
Another title for this film might have been Not His Day, as its writer, Damien Chazelle, has stacked the deck against Tom from the start. It opens with his arrival at O’Hare International Airport in a plane that nearly careers off the runway.
“Are we…landing?” he asks the man in the seat next to him.
“Landing?” the man responds. “Of course we’re landing. These things are made to last!”
Having made ample use of his sick bag, Tom staggers through immigration to find the limo that will take him to the concert hall. En route he does a live radio chat with an interviewer who unhelpfully reminds him of the last time he “choked” on stage. As the concert begins, he opens his score to find that someone has written across it, in large red ink, the words: “Play one wrong note and you DIE!”
This being a thriller, the author of the threat – a retired locksmith called Clem (John Cusack) – is not joking. It is only a matter of time before the luminous red dot that alerts all film-goers to the presence of a lunatic wielding a Rochester 47 automatic with scope-laser aim and silencer sweeps across the keyboard. By means of a concealed earpiece, Clem tells Tom that he must help him commit a heist while he is performing, or he will start using members of the audience for target practice, beginning with Tom’s flaxen-haired wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé). “You don’t want to see her brains spattered all over the walls, do you?” he asks.
Is this film ludicrous? Yes. Is it implausible? Undoubtedly. Do we object? Of course not. Like great poetry, thrillers are concerned with passion when it combusts or levitates, garnished with preposterousness. I suppose another title for this film might have been As You Like It, for it is concocted out of the spare parts of other people’s cliffhangers, the entire thing visualised by someone acquainted exclusively with the cinema of Brian De Palma and Dario Argento. Tom plays his Bösendorfer against a red silk backdrop that anticipates the carnage that will follow the smallest deviation from the music in front of him. Photographs of his deceased mentor stare out at us as if the hirsute old gent were Rasputin surveying the damned, while Tom’s vivacious wife, the innocent Emma, smiles at the assembled crowds, oblivious to the infrared dot as it passes across her forehead.
“You think this is some kind of game, you little snivelling piece of shit?” Clem shouts at Tom. The correct answer is, of course, “Yes.” This endless imitation is camp, an elaborate joust with those who snoozed away their youth in all-nighters at the Scala in King’s Cross. And the film is happy to present us with a series of coded allusions to fantasy-land. It is no accident that its protagonist shares a surname with one of the greatest Hollywood producers of the 20th century, that the overweight man he speaks to on his near-calamitous flight bears an uncanny resemblance to John Candy in John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – as if that actor were continuing to fly round the world forever – or that the venue in which he performs is called the Antoine Michelle Hall, an oblique reference to film actor Anthony Michael Hall. The film as a whole invokes François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960).
Those disinclined to regard films as self-referential puzzles will be relieved to hear that Grand Piano is more than an exercise in style. Wood and Cusack in the central roles are particularly effective. Wood is only slightly handicapped by the fact that he still looks 16 (although he is now in his early thirties), too young to play a washed-up concert musician who has to be seduced out of early retirement. But that is the least of the film’s implausibilities (whoever heard of a classical concert starting at 9.30pm?), and Wood’s approach to the role reflects his experience as an actor. He knows that the worst thing a leading man can do is gurn, grimace and gasp, and turns in a suitably restrained performance to match Cusack’s hard-edged rendering of the demented, rifle-happy locksmith.
Offscreen for most of the film, Cusack has by far the hardest job, but his evocation of menace comes over loud and clear through the earpiece that Tom wears throughout his performance. With 90 minutes in which to mine the conceit shoplifted from Hitchcock, the film-makers explore at length the notion that the artist has voices in his head, with Cusack delivering such observations as: “Stravinsky beat his own children, Mozart was a drunk, but you’re better than them, is that it? You’re a mediocre artist, Tom. You don’t have imagination because you make your living playing stuff other people write.” If this pushes the drama no closer to its conclusion, I cannot help but admire the ambitions of a film that attempts to provoke its audience with such ideas, however out of place they might be.
It is giving away nothing to reveal that the film’s crowning irony occurs at the moment when Tom concludes his otherwise perfect rendition of La Cinquette with an intentionally wrong note – only to discover, as he remarks, that “the audience didn’t realise it was wrong. They never do.” In context this is very funny – and there is more self-ridicule to follow.
Perhaps its sense of humour is what makes this the perfect film for a damp afternoon when one is meant to be grading papers or attending an important department meeting. It will speak vividly to anyone who has ever lectured to large numbers of people and knows how it feels when the audience is out to get you. I know that will not recommend it to anyone but academics and concert pianists – which may explain why Grand Piano bombed at the US box office. But for those who love shaggy dog stories, cult films of the 1970s or dramas about gunmen losing their wig in public places, it is a highly amusing piece of hokum that understands how to make virtues of its vices.