Producers: Sergey Selyanov, Genny Goudard, Daniel Goroshko, Alexander Skladchirov, Rodolphe Sanze, Laurent Fumeron, Fabrice Smadja, Julian Loeffler, Aija Bercina and Alise Gelze Director: Andrew Desmond Screenplay: Andrew Desmond and Arthur Morin Cast: Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian and Matt Barber Distributor: Screen Media Films
Stylish but slow and not very scary, Andrew Desmond’s cerebral horror film is based on the idea that music doesn’t so much soothe the savage beast as invite him to invade the human realm—the beast in this case being The Beast, aka Satan.
“The Sonata” begins with a rather gimmicky but clever opening sequence, filmed by cinematographer Janis Eglitis from the point of view of composer Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer), as finishes a manuscript, glimpses himself in a mirror, walks away holding a candle, grabs a container of gasoline, douses himself with it, and then sets himself ablaze.
Marlowe’s heir is his daughter Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley), a celebrated young concert violinist who was abandoned by her father as a child and has been estranged from him ever since; she hasn’t even told her manager Charles (Simon Abkarian) who her father is. Now, however, she makes her way to Marlowe’s rural French estate to claim what’s hers.
She finds, after talking with the housekeeper (Catherine Schaub-Abkarian) that Marlowe was a reclusive man, disliked by his neighbors, who, among other things, suspected him of playing a role in the disappearance of some local children. She also discovers the manuscript of Marlowe’s final composition, a violin sonata that switches from style to style and is annotated with some very peculiar signs.
Recognizing the value of the piece, Charles arrives to investigate it and becomes obsessed with decoding its mysterious passages. Conferring with musicologist Victor Ferdinand (James Faulkner), he learns that the peculiar annotations are related to a secret society that believed that dark powers could be invoked with music that follows a designated form, and that the sonata appears to embody the requisite pattern.
The rest of the film consists of interplay between Rose and Charles as he obsessively puzzles over the decrypting of the manuscript and insists that she is her father’s chosen vessel to perform the piece and fulfill its malevolent purpose. The last act brings revelations about the lengths to which Marlowe went to achieve his wicked ambitions and what the playing of the sonata finally unleashes.
“The Sonata” is a handsome-looking film; production designer Audrius Dumikas uses Latvian locations to excellent effect, and cinematographer Janis Eglitis gives everything a lustrous glow. The cast is fine as well, though some will be disappointed that Hauer’s contributions are so brief. And Alexis Maingaud provides a score, including the bits we hear of Marlowe’s sonata, that’s very impressive.
Unhappily, while all of that makes for a film that’s easy to watch, it doesn’t make for a very frightening experience. “The Sonata” mostly lumbers along at a moderate pace that’s meant to create tension, but because the narrative trajectory holds few surprises, it fails to do so; the fault lies with Desmond’s ultra-sedate approach and the correspondingly lethargic editing by J.P. Ferré. Giuseppe Tartini famously composed a violin sonata that he claimed was inspired by a dream in which the devil played for him. It came to be known as “The Devil’s Trill.” If you’ll excuse the pun, what Desmond is aiming for here is not a trill but a thriller, but his languid execution saps it of the energy it needs to be truly unnerving.