Dir: Yves Angelo. France. 2002. 83mins.
The latest feature from Yves Angelo is a small but compelling story that hinges on an unbalanced mother's jealousy of her talented piano-playing daughter. Although some audiences will feel that At The Tips Of Her Fingers leaves a little too much left unsaid, its careful weave of hints and nuances is in fact one of the film's strong points. The others are the robust performance of Marina Hands as the mother and Anne-Sophie Latour as the daughter and the lush classical soundtrack. But despite critical plaudits, the film has performed disappointingly in France, where it has registered 41,670 admissions ($216,684) since it opened on 40 screens four weeks ago. It may also prove to be too delicate a proposition for a healthy international run as well.
At The Tips Of Her Fingers is the third feature in recent cinema history to peg its tale of female neurosis on that most sturdy and uncomplaining of instruments, the piano. However, Angelo's feature has neither the romantic period setting of Jane Campion's The Piano nor the out-and-out sexual weirdness of Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher.
Juliette (Marina Hands), the mother, gives piano lessons in a small provincial town. She lives alone with her adolescent daughter, Julie (Anne-Sophie Latour), in who she has invested all her hopes and ambitions. But when the obssessively-coached daughter really does show signs of musical genius, Juliette is racked by jealousy, and her dark, possessive love soon begins to turn sour.
Angelo (Le Colonel Chabert, Voleur de Vie), who multi-tasks as director, cinematographer and co-writer, lays a trail of small markers that illuminate the characters and their motives. One example is his portrayal of Juliette the grandmother, a minor character who appears refreshing at first and an uninhibited foil to her daughter's bottled-up intensity. However, an offhand comment reveals her capacity for cruelty, suggesting she may well be part of the problem rather than its solution.
The film's main weakness is its layered structure, based around a series of flashbacks - particularly to the hospital where Julie, a premature baby, lay in an incubator for weeks. These are laid on a little too thickly and mark one of the few occasions when Angelo overstates his message.
In the end, however, one of the main attractions of At The Tips Of Her Fingers is its sumptuous classical soundtrack. It has the courage to give the audience whole minutes of uninterrupted music by Scarlatti, Bach, Chopin and other composers. But the music always ties in with the action, even when the only image on screen is that of hands moving at speed over a keyboard.
Performance is always veined with risk: especially after the mother has made an attempt to appropriate her daughter's talent by passing off a cassette of Julie's playing as her own. Angelo is making a point, one feels, about the contrast between a clean musical virtuosity that can attain something like perfection and the messy morass of human relations. It is not as visceral a point as Haneke's in The Piano Teacher - but it has an equal, if not greater, ring of truth.
Prod co: Film Par Film
Fr dist: Ocean Films
Int'l sales: TF1 International
Exec prod: Bernard Marescot
Prod: Jean-Louis Livi
Scr: Yves Angelo, Philippe Claudel
Ed: Susana Rossberg
Music: Philippe Cassard
Main cast: Marina Hands, Anne-Sophie Latour, Martine Chevalier, Thiery Hancisse, Pierre Charras, Pierre Kuentz