'The Audition' ('Das Vorspiel'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Hits a few notes but doesn’t strike a chord.

Nina Hoss ('Barbara,' 'Phoenix') stars in German actress-director Ina Weisse's sophomore feature, about a violin teacher whose life is unraveling.

A scene early in German actress-turned-filmmaker Ina Weisse’s second feature, The Audition, is indicative both of its heroine’s slippery psychology and the slippery nature of the movie itself: Anna, a music teacher and violinist played by the superb Nina Hoss (Barbara, Phoenix), is having dinner at a restaurant with her French husband, Philippe (Simon Abkarian). Before the two can even sit down, she asks him to change tables, and then she switches up her drink order a few times. Then she harasses the waiter about the menu, finally chooses something she likes, only to change her mind again, and then winds up swapping dishes with Philippe when their food arrives.

Anna, who’s caught in a midlife crisis that deepens throughout the movie, clearly doesn’t know what she wants. But the problem is that Weisse, the director, doesn’t always seem to know what she wants either in this prickly, wavering character study that both confounds and compels, and that doesn’t manage to land its ending.

At times, The Audition, with its stark depiction of a gifted 40-something woman who may be losing it, plays like a less exacting Michael Haneke movie (call it The Violin Teacher), especially when it heads to significantly darker places in the last act. It’s well-performed and crafted with the fine-tuned aesthetics of highbrow European art house flicks, including a soundtrack filled with Bach and other classical hitmakers. But it’s also too abstruse to be fully convincing, which should make this Toronto premiere a tough sell outside of festivals and territories that already prize Hoss’ talents.

An instructor at a prestigious Berlin music academy, Anna takes a liking in the opening scene to one of her new students: the taciturn Alexander (Ilja Monti), whom she sticks up for when the other teachers question his abilities. Why she does this is never clear, and what starts off as a promising apprenticeship, with Anna showing plenty of compassion toward the boy, turns into something much more troubling as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture.

Anna’s home life is hardly rosier, although at first blush it seems like she maintains a loving marriage with Philippe, who handcrafts string instruments in a workshop downstairs. But she’s also having an ongoing affair with a cellist, Christian (Jens Albinus), who keeps trying to convince her to join his quintet. Meanwhile, her 10-year-old son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev), seems to resent how Anna has pushed him to become a violinist just like herself; he would much rather play hockey.

While Weisse builds plenty of intriguing elements into the script, which she co-wrote with Daphne Charizani, the majority of them are not fully fleshed out by the last act. Again, this could be because Anna herself seems completely lost, saying one thing and doing the other, telling Philippe she loves him and then making out with Christian just after, or chastising Jonas, as her own father — a stern professor she visits in a few utterly depressing scenes in the suburbs — did the exact same thing to her.

Anna’s increasingly sadistic attitude toward Alexander is particularly hard to stomach. It’s possible she’s pushing him to become the great musician she never was, but she goes so overboard that we could care less whether he succeeds — in fact, we hope in some ways he’ll fail just to thwart this Cruella’s plans. The various storylines finally converge in a concert sequence that ends rather preposterously, and, even more disturbingly, leaves us without any real sympathy for Anna or her struggles. Whether or not this was what Weisse ultimately intended is hard to judge.

And yet, Hoss, who rose to acclaim in the films of Christian Petzold and also stars in the Toronto-Venice title Pelican Blood, delivers another fine turn that at times elevates the murky material to a higher level. Weisse and DP Judith Kaufmann keep the camera glued to Hoss’ every reaction, including several scenes where she watches Alexander practice and her face becomes a mine of uncertainty, frustration and, as the plot progresses, undue ferocity. It’s not quite enough to save the film from unraveling, but the actress' razor-sharp performance passes the audition with flying colors.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production company: Lupa Film
Cast: Nina Hoss, Simon Abkarian, Jens Albinus, Ilja Monti, Serafin Mishiev
Director: Ina Weisse
Screenwriters: Daphne Charizani, Ina Weisse
Producer: Felix Von Boehm
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Susanne Hopf
Costume designer: Petra Kray
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Casting directors: Nina Haun, Youna de Peretti, Patrick Dreikauss
Sales: Les Films du Losange

In German, French
99 minutes