Grand Piano (2013)



Eugenio Mira
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Unax Mendía

Running time: 90 minutes

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a central conceit that has been incredibly effective in other thrillers, most notably Speed, Nick of Time and Phone Booth, but it squanders the potential of its idea by drowning it in style and spectacle without eliciting any fear or thrill in the viewer (not unlike the disappointing single-setting but visually extravagant Buried, which producer Rodrigo Cortés directed). In fact, one character’s actions during the climax are so wildly melodramatic, we cannot help but laugh at the utter absurdity of the staging and the lack of credibility.

The plot sees prodigious piano player Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), who has not performed in five years after having had a breakdown during his last show, coming back to the stage to play the piano his late maestro, Patrick Godureaux, so cherished. He is expected to play a piece titled “La Cinquette,” which will require him to do strenuous finger movements at a superhuman pace right at the end of the piece, and he is understandably stressed out.

In an effort to calm him down, his conductor tells him that no one expects him to play perfectly, and that the audience never notices tiny screw-ups in a piano performance anyway. However, Tom is about to get the fright of his life when he takes to the stage and opens his sheet music. There, in bright red ink, are little scribbles that tell him to play every single note perfectly lest his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), beaming with pride from her seat in one of the boxes, gets shot to pieces by a state-of-the-art laser-equipped rifle.

Tom suspects this is a joke, but when he notices a little dot of red light dancing around the piano, and then on his wife’s face, he breaks out in cold sweat. In one of many moments that repeat throughout the film, he runs offstage to audible gasps from the audience, while the orchestra continues playing, to his dressing room, where he finds more evidence that his life is in danger, as well as an earpiece to follow the instructions of his would-be assassin, voiced by John Cusack.

For the rest of the film, Tom will be sitting in the spotlight, from the looks of things speaking to himself but actually communication with the man he cannot see and whose intentions he knows nothing about, except that they may lead to his own assassination. But both this mysterious man and Tom are very talkative, and it would seem little concentration is required to play all the right notes, or perhaps this pianist is just unusually gifted, as there is a continuous back and forth between the two with no sign of Tom, whom the voice in his ear provocatively, playfully and punnily refers to as “a man of note,” missing a beat, or more importantly, a note.

But what starts out as a very strong premise for tension is properly drenched in style, as Mira’s camera flies across the stage with wild crane shots, again and again surging over the orchestra towards Tom, and whooshily swirls around his one-in-a-million piano that contains the key (another pun the film plays with a bit too often) to his survival.

Elijah Wood’s big eyes are perfectly suited to the material, as the obvious curiosity he exudes fits with the enigma his character is trying to get a grip on. However, the character of his wife, Emma, is a big joke, and in a last-ditch attempt at tension during the climax, she is central to one of the most bizarre moments in the entire film, as she seems to pleasure herself with a song, performed impromptu for an adoring public, while her husband is running around trying to save them from looming execution. This detour into insanity will either have the viewer in stitches or make her cringe with embarrassment, as we simply cannot fathom how a story with such a serious premise could plumb such depths of farce.

Grand Piano has spectacle but no tension. We do not share the point of view of the audience but rather of the pianist, who on top of playing the most difficult piece of his life, seems to cope very well indeed with having his and his wife’s lives threatened by a lunatic who seems to be very handy with a gun. But wait until you hear what the assassin actually does for a living — one can hardly things could get much more preposterous! If Mira had defined his film more clearly as comedy, perhaps it would have been more enjoyable, but the strange combination of a life in danger and hilarious comedy in the final act make for an uneven viewing experience that few members of the audience will find satisfying. 

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