The Kreutzer Sonata (2008)

The Kreutzer Sonata

In Bernard Rose’s The Kreutzer Sonata, Danny Huston rampages through Hollywood-hued infidelity with green-eyed rage. It’s a furious symphony of Tolstoyan gloom.

The Kreutzer Sonata

Music To Watch Wives By by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Celebrating the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, Bernard Rose has released The Kreutzer Sonata, the second in his trilogy following Ivansxtc on the social mores of the Californian glitterati based on works by the Russian master. And despite its Los Angeles largesse and digital, handheld shooting style, a 19th century fascination with female lasciviousness lingers on, as one man drills the depths of his wife’s womanhood. Old Green Eyes is back.

Tolstoy wrote his notorious novella The Kreutzer Sonata in 1889, inspired by a performance of the Beethoven composition at his Moscow townhouse. A tale of jealous rage which peaks during a recital of the sonata by the hero’s wife and an attractive violinist, Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata is a tirade against carnal love and a testimony to the power of music. In fact, Tolstoy’s guests (painter Ilya Repin and actor Vasily Andreyev-Burlak) were so entranced, they proposed a kind of proto-cinema performance in response, combining narrative, painting, performance and music. Sadly, the multimedia gala never took place (the actor died), but it stands as testimony to the brute force of Beethoven’s violin and piano duet to inspire cinema of the purest kind.

Bernard Rose’s The Kreutzer Sonata is, like Beethoven’s piece, an exultant meditation on jealous fury. Danny Huston, in an aggressively mysogynist voiceover, introduces himself as Edgar, the lupine hero, a Beverley Hills beast of sexual desire, pursuing concert pianist Abby into marriage and kids before obsessing about her adulterous liaisons with Aiden, the violinist who accompanies his wife in a charity performance of the eponymous sonata. Deftly overlaying several chronologies simultaneously, Rose masterfully creates something astoundingly fresh; a poetic symphony of dissonant movements, editing narrative threads into cadenced visual melodies.

The potency of music here is almost a riposte to Proust’s Vinteuil fragment; instead of inspiring Swann’s grand amour, The Kreutzer Sonata inspires an excruciating envy, as Edgar observes the furtive smiles and pianissimo looks between the two musicians. Despite confessing his numbness to classical music, Edgar falls for Abby only after listening to a CD of her exquisite piano playing. Similarly, Aiden’s fiddling is so enchanting, Edgar finds it impossible to believe Abby can resist his orphic charms. Here music is more than the food of love, it’s a “waffer-thin” smorgasbord. Inebriated on refrains from the sonata, Edgar imagines a passionate marital intermezzo between the duo, all fingering strings and pounding keys, driving him octave by octave into a crescendo of murderous frenzy.

Danny Huston’s beguilingly honest performance is however more than mere jealousy. It’s a crisis of manhood. Set salivating by Abby’s nascent sexual power, Edgar feels his masculinity heightened; more manly still for sadistic sex and stealing another man’s woman. Yet already the seed of doubt is planted – “If she had an affair with him…” A seed which germinates when, hoping to make Abby happy, he procures her a violinist. His gut instinct is to send Aiden packing, but won over by his music (or is it the elegant curve of Aiden’s violin-arched nape?) Edgar seals the deal. Too manly to be afraid, he puts his masculinity on the line, hoping to prove he can cope with the competition. And the jealousy.

Unravelling, Edgar feeds his suspicions, unable to trust, unable to maintain that illusion of control. (As he postulates at a dinner party, trust is just hoping people will behave as you would like them to.) His work controlled by his sister (real-life half-sister Anjelica Huston) and his home life by his wife, we might even feel for the “pussy-whipped” macho. Distrustful and empty, he is a lone wolf in a (consumerist) world made for women, where women apparently call the shots. But this affront to the strutting cock’s puissance reveals a gaping hole in his life, a great fat O.

While Abby is forced to choose between motherhood and career as a concert pianist, it seems Edgar has nothing to give up and nothing more to become. He is a blank cipher fixated only on sex and his beautiful wife. His suspicions give way to lusty imaginings of her infidelity. Are they a figment or a divination of the truth? The libido that drove Abby’s passion for music becomes, in his eyes, a wanton eroticism, as Abby flowers into the full bloom of womanhood, nectar just waiting to be supped. Held in a staccato of unremitting suspense, Edgar never knows, can never know the truth. An all-too-real reflection of reality, Rose’s film never gives it away. Until it just doesn’t matter any more.

The Kreutzer Sonata was already soiled in ménage à trois intrigue, as Beethoven only replaced the original violinist Bridgetower with the world famous Rodolphe Kreutzer after he “besmirched” the morals of Beethoven’s lover. What in Beethoven was offended petulance becomes magnified in Tolstoy and Rose’s narrative into a terrifyingly emotional violence. The handheld filming is astoundingly agile, revealing (for the most part) profoundly real performances, Danny Huston and Elisabeth Röhm are disconcertingly honest. The narrative ellipses are sometimes shocking; we jump-cut from distracted insemination to postnatal anguish, making the characters at times awkwardly expressionistic. But The Kreutzer Sonata is a delicate, intelligent exposé on 21st century gender power play. A terrifying danse macabre between the sexes, between death and the maiden.

The Kreutzer Sonata is released in the UK on March 12, 2010.

Join the discussion