‘Maestro’: Film Review

Nicolas Schul
A novice actor and seasoned director make unlikely friends in this charming on-set dramedy, inspired by an encounter with the late Eric Rohmer.

Pio Marmai (“Aliyah”) stars opposite the great Michael Lonsdale (“Munich,” “Out 1”) in a film inspired by Eric Rohmer and his encounter with the late French actor Jocelyn Quivrin (“99 Francs”).

When New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer directed his pastoral costume drama, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, back in 2006, he did not necessarily know it would be his final movie. Nor did he know that one of its young stars, Jocelyn Quivrin, would die in a car crash only a few years later. Despite the unfortunate events that followed, the making of Rohmer’s ultimate oeuvre provides for a heartwarming tale of master and apprentice in Maestro, a story based on Quivrin’s own experiences on set, adapted here by the late actor and writer-director Lea Fazer (Cookie).

Featuring first-rate turns from rising star Pio Marmai (A Happy Event) and veteran stage/screen great Michael Lonsdale— who’s worked with everyone from Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette to John Frankenheimer and Stephen Spielberg—this behind-the-scenes dramedy initially suffers from too much airiness until picking up weight as it follows one young man’s cultural evolution at the hands of a great artist. Released late July in France, the film should do moderate business at home, while offshore fests and niche distributors could program it as a minor treat for Nouvelle Vague lovers.

Although he hopes to become the next Bruce Willis, struggling actor Henri (Marmai) can only land roles on B-grade TV shows and discount food commercials. So when his friend and fellow thespian Pauline (Alice Belaidi) tells him about a small part in the new film by famous Gallic auteur Cedric Rovere (Lonsdale), he jumps at the occasion, but only because he hopes to get close to one of its co-stars—the beautiful, theater-trained Gloria (Deborah Francois).

Arriving in a medieval town in the secluded Creuse region, Henri and his best bud, Nicoballon (Nicolas Bridet), quickly learn that this is not your typical movie set. The aging Rovere seems to hail from another, simpler time, working with a loyal skeleton crew of five or six people and shooting on Super-16mm, while offering his toga-clad actors minimal direction (“Don’t put any feelings there,” he tells them) as he spouts poetry and contemplates the surrounding landscape.

During the opening reels, Fazer paints a fairly broad portrait of the fun but rather shallow young Henri, showing how easily he falls for the sophisticated starlet Gloria, all the while failing to take Rovere’s movie seriously. (A hilarious scene has Henri and Nicoballon stupefied as they watch an early Rovere film, which parodies one of Rohmer's movies from his “Comedies and Proverbs” series.)

While the off-camera romance is never quite believable (and did not actually happen, per the press notes), the paternal relationship between Henri and Rovere thankfully takes center stage as the story progresses. Ultimately, it transforms into a tender roman d’education, in which the budding actor learns how to stop worrying and love Paul Verlaine and the aging cineaste gets in touch with his more playful side, picking up contemporary slang and basking in Henri’s general insouciance.

If their scenes are among the film’s finest, it’s due mostly to the two strong lead performances: 30-year-old Marmai has proved himself to be a versatile actor who can switch from comedy (A Happy Event) to drama (Aliyah) with relative ease, and he does it well here, his brawny good looks masking a more troubled persona beneath. But its Lonsdale who really takes the cake, using minimal gestures to turn Rovere into a mysterious and moving character—a man reveling in the quiet beauties of the world as his life slowly runs out. (Lonsdale may be the craftiest scene-stealer in modern cinema—he dominated Spielberg’s Munich in one memorable family sequence—and he’s the kind of actor who could sit there doing his tax returns and make the whole thing riveting.)

Accompanying the fine cast is a tech package mimicking the breezy, sun-drenched style of Rohmer’s work, albeit in a highly polished and picturesque fashion—including sharp HD cinematography by Lucas Leconte. Music by Clement Ducol is much too cloying, pushing our buttons in ways that the French auteur would never dare to.

Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Rezo Productions
Cast: Pio Marmai, Michael Lonsdale, Deborah Francois, Alice Belaidi, Nicolas Bridet
Director: Lea Fazer
Screenwriters: Jocelyn Quivrin, Lea Fazer
Producers: Isabelle Grellat Doublet, Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Lucas Leconte
Production designers: Marie-Helene Sulmoni, Thierry Lautout
Costume designer: Claire Lacaze
Editor: Jean-Francois Elie
Composer: Clement Ducol
Sales agent: Rezo

No rating, 84 minutes