By turns clunky, corny and downright brilliant, Abel Gance’s 1936 biopic on Ludwig Van Beethoven is never less than fascinating — and it marks an attempt to break through to something more substantial than the typical Hollywood portrait of a historical great. Of course, Gance had already broken the biopic mould with a vengeance in his 1927 super-spectacle Napoleon, but Grand Amour is a good bit different.
It’s years since I read a Beethoven biography, yet I think I can say Gance’s take is a little on the simplistic side — as if he was trying to make a film that would be popular with the broadest possible audience. The director focuses almost entirely on Ludwig’s romantic life, his deafness and his poverty. In other words, the traditional biopic stuff. But that’s merely the surface material; in terms of presenting the music, Gance often reaches greatness (though his penchant for using the first few notes of the Fifth Symphony whenever anything of note happens becomes downright comical).
The “Moonlight Sonata” sequence where the composer’s great love (Jany Holt) throws him over is very good, but the thunder-and-lightning composition fantasia in the old windmill is absolutely stunning, and seems more related to the surrealist filmmakers than to the mainstream biopic. These things, and the manner in which Gance depicts Beethoven’s first spell of deafness, show that the filmmaker was still inventive after Napoleon.
Working on an obviously constrained budget, Gance had the great good fortune to have in Harry Baur an actor whose depiction of Beethoven helped overcome some of the film’s shortcomings and a few of the other players’ elaborate posturings (Jany Holt has one moment where you can just hear her thinking, “What an exit!” as she leaves the frame).
A mixed bag, yes, but one well worth opening.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will show Un Grand Amour de Beethoven on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West and turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]