Yaron Zilberman’s new film on a quartet in discord

The delicate, fragile balance in a social structure where professional lives are intertwined with personal lives is explored through the prism of a string quartet in the new movie “A Late Quartet.” Israeli-born filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, who has loved chamber music since his youth, described how he got the idea for the film while traveling to promote his 2004 documentary, “Watermarks.” That film dealt with women from the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna, who were championship swimmers and who reunited in their 80s to swim one more time in the city they had to flee when the Nazis invaded almost seven decades earlier. Zilberman said that he wanted his next movie to explore the way relationships shift within a family. “It immediately came to my mind that the dynamic within an accomplished string quartet that usually travels about seven months a year, including the intimacies that arise with all the rehearsals, the performing, the recording and the co-dependencies that develop, professionally and emotionally, would provide a fresh approach to telling a story about family dynamics.”

Zilberman added, “The hero is the quartet, which is almost something spiritual, or more of an idea than a thing, because they decide to become a string quartet by the fact that they rehearse every day, and they have a name, and they perform and record. And that allows for a dynamic between four people, and then three within that, and then each two have their own dynamic, and each individual has his own journey, so it allows for many types of relationships.” 

In Zilberman’s script, the noted quartet is embarking on its 25th anniversary season when the cellist, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), learns that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. He tells his colleagues that he will be leaving the group after the upcoming season, an announcement that unleashes unforeseen emotional and professional upheaval, in much the same way that a house of cards collapses when just one card is moved. The turmoil that is engendered threatens the group’s very existence and jeopardizes long-standing, intimate relationships.

Two of the group’s members, second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) are married. Juliette is particularly upset by Peter’s news because she has known him since childhood and viewed him as something of a father figure. Robert sees in the impending change an opportunity to alternate positions with the quartet’s first violinist, Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), who is adamantly opposed to the idea. Robert wants his wife to support his demand, but she demurs, saying it’s not a good idea, and he briefly turns to another woman, thereby risking his marriage. Further complicating the mix is the fact that, years earlier, Juliette and Daniel had been involved with each other.

In the midst of all the turbulence, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), the daughter of Robert and Juliette and herself a promising violinist, begins an affair with Daniel that she attempts to hide from her parents.

For what may well be their last appearance together, the quartet is preparing Beethoven’s Opus 131. Zilberman, who said he is passionate about string quartets and, particularly, about Beethoven’s late quartets, explained that he chose Opus 131 because its structure lends itself to the story he is telling.

“It’s got seven movements, which was very distinct. I think it was the first time ever that a composer wrote a piece in seven movements. And also, all the movements are connected in the sense that Beethoven is asking the musicians not to stop between the movements, so that you’re not allowed to stop and to tune your instruments, so it’s also, in a way, a fight, a struggle against the elements of the violins and the cello.”

Zilberman continued, “I thought that the seven movements, and the fact that each movement has its own story and mood, and rhythm, duration and progression in terms of life story, plus the interconnectedness between the movements, could provide an engine, a spiritual engine, a structural engine, an inspiration, for writing the script.”

Zilberman’s wife, Tamar Sela, who is also from Israel, was a producer for the film. She recalled how they wrote and developed the project on their living room sofa in New York. Sela noted that she was particularly drawn to this story because it centers on people working together to create art and the challenges accompanying that process.

“I was intrigued by that. I was in the army in Israel, and I was the producer for the rock bands, and I knew what it is to work within a group and to try to create something special within a group, and what that brings, and I loved that in the story.

“I was very lucky; I worked with amazing musicians, and I also worked with a theater group and amazing theater directors. I had the best military service ever. I was a lucky girl.”

Sela and Zilberman have worked on projects independently, but they are also partners in their company, Opening Night Productions. Sela finds their collaborations don’t always allow for a separation between work and home.

“There are times that it gets very intense, and it takes over life. The advantage of it is that it’s the most amazing, exciting experience to have created this together. It’s like a third kid, like a third baby. And within this process, we had two babies. We made our two children during the seven years of working on this movie. At the end of the day, we’re going to do it again, so we had to find it exciting enough in order to want to do it again.”

Sela said that, though they are proud of their Israeli roots, their affiliation with Judaism is more cultural than religious. One of their next projects will be a film about the Holocaust and World War II. “A Late Quartet” does not contain any overt Jewish references, but the character of Daniel Lerner was written as a foreigner with an accent and he is meant to be Jewish, according to Zilberman.

“In the more spiritual sense,” the filmmaker remarked, “for me, the quartet is almost like talmudic rabbis, which is an influence from where I originated, as well as the tradition and the culture in which I grew up, which is a culture and a tradition of arguing about an interpretation and finding a common ground. The whole of talmudic thought is comprised of serious arguments about particular sentences in the Bible, or concepts, and attempts to convince one another.

“So I have a feeling that, in a string quartet, that’s the situation; they need to play together and, eventually, what you hear is that sound that comes from four musicians playing together, but it’s only after they argue endlessly about every note and interpretation of every phrase, and that’s, for me, Jewish.”

The film opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 2 at the Landmark Theatre, 10850 W. Pico Blvd.