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Sweet Bird of Youth

Toro! Toro! (Sony Pictures Classics)

(Originally published July 1, 1988)

It must’ve begun with the Romantics, our culture’s frantic overvaluation of youth. For living fast and dying pretty, musicians of the 20th century have nothing on the poets of the early 19th. Even the old stodge Wordsworth wrote his best stuff early in his career. His ode “Intimations of Immortality” claims that aging is a prison house: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” The Romantics were the first to mistrust everyone over 30 — and to turn that sentiment into art.

By coincidence, two filmmakers who first established themselves as cinematic voices of badass youth, Paul Morrissey and Pedro Almodóvar, have recently released films that take an emotion — love — seriously. Morrissey’s Beethoven’s Nephew (1986) tells the true story of the legendary composer’s insanely possessive love for his brother’s child. Almodóvar’s Matador explores the dark attachment between a former bullfighter and a woman lawyer who believe that living, loving and killing are identical activities, each necessary for the other. Coincidentally, too, these two films repudiate the cult of youth with both their subject matter and their austere style: Beethoven’s Nephew and Matador reflect a maturity far beyond any Morrissey or Almodóvar has previously shown.

Beethoven’s Nephew is the much better film. It’s set in Vienna during what’s considered the “final phase” of the composer’s life — the period between 1815 and 1827, between the time he gained custody of his nephew and his death. Most of the story is told as the flashback imagining of the 19-year-old nephew, Karl (Dietmar Prinz), as he sits in the drafty room where his uncle died of pneumonia the day before. Karl remembers his oppressive life with his famous uncle (Wolfgang Reichmann), in which he was forced to love music, physically torn from his mother, hounded at school, prevented from seeing girls (Ludwig considered all women prostitutes), and moved from lodging to lodging as Beethoven ran out of money, subjected to his uncle’s constant, unpredictable madness. Eventually, Karl is forced to take revenge, first on himself (he attempts suicide), then on the maestro.

The flashback conceit partially accounts for the film’s up-tempo, forge-ahead storytelling: Beethoven’s Nephew doesn’t have to slog along a straight timeline. Instead, the script explores its major themes — Karl’s sullen resentment, Beethoven’s hideous character, the beauty of the music — in a series of scenes that scintillate. They’re brief, pungent, pointed, mirroring the leap of a mind from indelible memory to indelible memory. The structure enables Morrissey to cover a lot of ground, a lot of time and a lot of characters. In that sense, the film is quite lavish; in another sense, though, Beethoven’s Nephew is spare and economical. It never obscures its major themes with asides or inconsequential detail. (This lavish economy is also reflected in Mario Garbuglia’s art direction, especially in his use of monumental Viennese exteriors.) Morrissey makes everything count — every hard-boiled egg, every carriage ride, every discussion about the sorry state of Beethoven’s finances.

Making everything count is characteristic of the way Morrissey works. Despite the thematic excesses of his earlier work — too much sex, blood, cynicism — he isn’t a wasteful director, because he’s never had the luxury of a real budget. (Andy Warhol probably spent more on bric-a-brac in three months than he spent on Heat, Trash, Dracula and Frankenstein combined.) In Beethoven’s Nephew, Morrissey’s usual frugality has grown into an almost classical control, an unprecedented rigor and balance. There’s very little frenzy here, very little camp, and it suits him. Morrissey has always (secretly) been the Puritan, a hater of the flesh, of sensual indulgence, of disorder of any kind. Only occasionally, when the humor fails to hit the right note or the camera leers a little too blatantly at the shapely Prinz, do we glimpse the Morrissey of Heat: Beethoven suddenly becomes Sylvia Miles, so to speak, and Karl, Joe Dallesandro. But that’s only occasionally.

More astonishing than Morrissey’s newfound restraint is the amount of genuine emotion that Beethoven’s Nephew generates. Until now, it was my impression that Morrissey’s idea of emotion was Udo Kier’s Baron von Frankenstein jumping on top of his own monster, sticking his dick into a stomach scar and saying something like, “You know nothing about life until you’ve fucked death in the gall bladder,” as he pumps himself into a sweat. In this scene, as in countless others like it, Morrissey isn’t parodying emotion, he’s saying that all emotion is a parody.

None of that’s left in Beethoven’s Nephew. Morrissey and Mathieu Carrière’s script treats the feelings of characters and the audience unironically (perhaps because the truth is so bizarre). After setting up the conventional emotional identifications, it shifts the identification radically from the nephew to Beethoven during the film. Initially, you’re sympathetic to Karl and his mother (Jane Birkin), who’re up against a patently insane, paranoid, vindictive individual. (This is all historically accurate: Morrissey even soft-pedals Beethoven somewhat to make him marginally palatable.) Slowly, your allegiance slides over to Beethoven, not because he gets nicer or saner — he doesn’t — but because, in the midst of everything, he really does love and need his nephew. Reichmann’s performance (one of the best of 1986 or 1988), combined with the seductive power of the music (notably the Ninth Symphony), places all the movie’s weight on the side of “true feeling,” however violently that true feeling expresses itself.

Karl emerges as blank and thoughtless, a shallow, unimaginative youth who, tyrannized as he undeniably was, tries to murder a genius out of sheer peevishness. To give this psychological portrait a historical dimension, Karl is linked with the death of classicism: As Beethoven lies unconscious on a cold stone floor in an abandoned monastery, Karl stares at him unfeelingly from the midst of some time-eaten statues. Karl is the New, the callow Romantic, the 19th century’s rebel without any particular cause. The film doesn’t like him or his ignorance of what he’s trying to destroy. In this dislike, Beethoven’s Nephew seems to speak for Morrissey’s underlying conservatism: his essential belief in high art, in emotion, and in the value of experience over youthfulness.

It took Paul Morrissey 20 years to reach this point. Pedro Almodóvar has condensed a similar trajectory into a mere four films: This decade, he’s voyaged from the Dionysian Labyrinth of Passion (1982) to the Apollonian somberness of Matador, his first attempt to treat serious emotion seriously. And although Matador is a respectable effort, definitely worth seeing, it doesn’t produce the fear, trembling and sexual tension that these love-unto-death stories can produce.

Matador’s opening sequence is easily its best: Racy, blackly humorous, it shows Almodóvar when he’s really cooking. On a TV screen, women are getting hacked to bits. The camera pulls back, and we see someone watching the slasher film, whacking off. Before that really sinks in, Matador cuts to a playground where a woman in tall hair and a strange wraparound garment picks up a man. She takes him someplace, and while they have sex, she sticks a long pin into the top of his spine, killing him. The film cuts back and forth between these two scenes, finally matching the orgasms as she continues to fuck the dead man and the masturbator climaxes over the vision of mutilated women.

After this opening, you are prepared for just about anything. But Almodóvar doesn’t test you any further. The film swiftly assumes a classical cool, introducing the ex-matador, Diego (Nacho Martinez), his perhaps-gay student, Angel (Antonio Banderas), and Diego’s young model girlfriend (Eva Cobo), whom Angel tries to rape to prove his heterosexuality. Angel confesses to rape — and then four murders; but the story twists away from Angel’s legal predicament to follow the burgeoning love affair between Diego and Angel’s lawyer, Maria (Assumpta Serna).

Although its events could hardly be more demented, Matador seems designed to answer this question: Can Almodóvar make a film in which his camera barely moves? That is, the director wants to be adult, controlled, absolutely straight — none of that adolescent swooshing and rushing and lizard’s-eye-view silliness that he’s known for. Each frame is filmed like a still life hanging on a wall. The characters move in and out of that frame placidly or in a hurry, but their speed never influences the camera. The pacing ranges from effectively solemn to downright tedious, as the sequences unroll at an unvarying pace; and the art direction, except for the blood-red costuming and the overdone satin-and-rose of the climactic sequence, is relatively staid for an Almodóvar film.

The obvious purpose of this stylistic rigidity — the classic angles of the mise en scène — is to contain some violent, potentially formless emotions. It’s almost as though Almodóvar temporarily cast his lot on the side of repression, calculating that the best way to dramatize the D.H. Lawrencian proportions of Maria and Diego’s attraction was to put a tight lid on it and watch it explode. (He prefers this to the excessive, groveling-in-the-dirt emotionalism of Duel in the Sun, which appears in Matador when Maria ducks into a theater to evade Diego.) But nothing explodes; we never feel what Maria and Diego feel. Matador remains cold, reaching vainly for a classical profundity that Almodóvar either lacks the artistic maturity to convey or that simply doesn’t suit his more romantic, exuberant, messy temperament.

If Matador is Almodóvar’s most misjudged film to date, its faults stem from the filmmaker’s attempt to push his work in a new direction. Beethoven’s Nephew demonstrates how much good can come out of just such an attempt. The worst mistake a fan can make is to refuse to let her favorite directors get older.

Matador plays daily, October 6–12, at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 as part of the ongoing Viva Pedro retrospective.