Blockbuster spectacles are a dime a dozen. The thing we almost never see is the ambitious trifle, the smaller movie that strives to tell a story with vivid images rather than dialogue, that uses music lavishly but intelligently, that dances right at us, Nijinksy-style, with unapologetic theatricality, if not outright nuttiness. Grand Piano, a devilish little thriller from Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Mira, is that sort of movie.
In olden times — like, the ’80s — to call a movie “stylish” was to damn it with faint praise. But today’s movies are desperate for some flair: Magnificent special effects aren’t a style, they’re a line on a balance sheet. And deciding to make your movie in black-and-white, or to blanch most of the color out of it to make it look grittier, is barely the pinkie of style, let alone the whole hand. With Grand Piano, Mira uses both hands, sometimes to the extent that he seems to do too much. But even after the story falls apart, you still feel you’ve seen something. Grand Piano has savoir-faire to burn.
The plot mechanism alone is ingeniously ridiculous. Elijah Wood plays a once-great concert pianist, Tom Selznick, who hasn’t performed in five years. He choked while mounting a difficult piece, which led him to slink away from the public eye. But his wife, willowy movie starlet Emma (Kerry Bishé), hopes to get him back in the game. She uses her star power to arrange a very special concert: Tom, accompanied by a full orchestra, will make his comeback seated at the custom Bösendorfer that once belonged to his mentor, a rich, eccentric genius. Tom is nervous enough when he finally sits down to play; then, a page or two into the piece, he looks at his sheet music and sees, amid the chaotic orderliness of all those beamed and dotted notes, a message printed in red Sharpie: “Play one wrong note and you die.”
The devious snake behind that directive — later, we’ll hear his voice through an earpiece, and it belongs to John Cusack — also has it in for Emma, which makes Tom doubly anxious to comply. Did I mention that part of Tom’s assignment is to perform a composition that has been deemed unplayable? Grand Piano‘s elaborate script is by Damien Chazelle (whose directorial debut, Whiplash, won the grand jury award at Sundance in January), and the picture isn’t as clearly plotted as it might be — key details are packed into lines of dialogue that whiz by at lightning speed. You need to be fast enough to catch them, or to decide they don’t matter that much.
Luckily, they don’t. Grand Piano takes place almost exclusively in a Chicago concert hall, but even more notably, much of it takes place at the keyboard. Mira takes a situation other filmmakers might view as static and fires it up. In the movie’s press notes, he freely admits to “having been raised by wolves” like Spielberg, Zemeckis, De Palma, and Hitchcock, and you can see the pawprints of each on Grand Piano, though it’s the latter two who leave claw marks. The story embraces elements of The Man Who Knew Too Much, particularly in the way Mira — who has composed movie music himself — uses the fractured score as a kind of murder weapon, all treacherous shards of sound. (It’s by Spanish composer Victor Reyes, and parts of it actually do sound unplayable.)
But Mira’s camera moves are all De Palma, or at least Hitchcock as filtered through De Palma. Like him, Mira doesn’t just show us interesting images — a man playing for his life at a gleaming piano, a movie star shimmering along in a silky Grecian gown. He uses the camera to show us where to look, which is something else entirely. The movie opens with a crew of workmen readying that magnificent beast of a piano for transport. Where is it going, and why? Mira directs our gaze to its underbelly as it’s lowered to street level from an upper-story window. It has secrets we can’t see, at least not yet. Later, Tom becomes the vibrating center of a virtuosic circular pan; there’s madness in his eyes, but maybe there’s a demon inside the camera, too.
Grand Piano takes place in a lavish setting populated by dressed-up people, including a leading man who wears a tux practically every minute. Wood lives up to the outfit. Tom’s cartoon anxiety over returning to live performance gives way to an exquisitely exaggerated terror: As Wood plays him, he’s an ultra-neurotic aesthete, all nerves and fingers and overcaffeinated eyes — he seems to have taken the title of that old Talking Heads record, Fear of Music, to heart.
Despite a fabulous, shattering crescendo near the end, the plot does fall to pieces. These days, all movie villains have some practical motivation. Why can’t people just be plumb crazy anymore? But the picture is enjoyable for reasons that go beyond plot details. The defiant formality of Grand Piano is its finest feature. Making this kind of thriller has all but become a lost art, yet Mira clearly believes that high style is worth bothering with. In the movie’s terms, music really can hurt you. That’s a big gesture for a director to make — but then, maybe we need more maestros.