French director Anne Fontaine brings her trademark elegance and patience to the biopic genre with Boléro, an intimate look at the creative struggles behind a classic piece of music. Known for period dramas like Coco Before Chanel that peel back the curtain on famous lives with restraint, Fontaine once again focuses more on capturing emotional truths than adhering to strict facts.
This time, she turns her lens on Maurice Ravel, the early 20th century French composer who gifted the world with the hypnotic, repetitive strains of Boléro. Though the piece has become a warhorse of classical music familiar even to casual listeners, the story of its creation is less well known. Fontaine sets out to illuminate that mystery, dramatizing the years in which a perfectionist, eccentric Ravel wrestles with self-doubt and creative paralysis to ultimately birth his most enduring work.
She envelops the audience in the textures of 1920s France, surrounding the composer with potential muses and moments of inspiration from bustling factories to lonely brothels. What emerges is a sympathetic glimpse into the melancholy mind of an artist forever trying to realise the exquisite sounds in his head, filtered through Fontaine’s patient and meticulous style. Classical music fans will appreciate this ode to Ravel’s legacy, but Fontaine has crafted a universally resonant portrait of creative struggle spanning procrastination and prevarication to those rare flashes of genius.
The Winding Road to A Masterpiece
Boléro traces Maurice Ravel’s fitful journey to compose the beloved symphonic crescendo that shares its name. In 1927, the French composer is at the height of his fame but facing pressure from critics that his meticulously crafted works lack emotion and sensuality. Enter the bohemian choreographer Ida Rubinstein, portrayed flamboyantly by Jeanne Balibar, who commissions Ravel to write a steamy new ballet score for her latest production.
Intimidated but intrigued, the mild-mannered composer agrees, little realizing this proposition will launch him into years of creative purgatory. What follows is a waiting game rife with self-doubt, distractions, and false starts as the ever-fastidious Ravel struggles to conjure the notes that will become his calling card.
Fontaine artfully juxtaposes this central drama with illuminating glimpses into her protagonist’s past and relationships. Through dream-like flashbacks, we learn of Ravel’s traumatic wartime experience, close bond with his late mother, and painful repeated failures to win a prestigious composition prize in his youth. In the present day, his attention is divided between nurturing potential muses like his close friend, the pianist Marguerite Long, and pining after the elusive married socialite Misia Sert. Their aloof affection only exacerbates Ravel’s loneliness. Meanwhile, the clock ticks on his ballet commission as the choreographer’s grand premiere looms.
After years adrift in creative doldrums, Ravel finally experience a eureka moment while listening to the repetitive clanking of factory machinery. The locking harmonies spark the seed of a composition. From there, the alluring notes of Boléro pour from Ravel’s mind to manuscript pages in a feverish rush before the deadline. Fontaine builds palpable tension as we wait to see if this accidental breakout success can save Ravel’s reputation or if he will remain misunderstood as an out-of-touch artist.
Probing the Soul of a Tormented Artist
Fontaine utilizes the story behind one of classical music’s most ubiquitous works to explore several resonant themes about the tortured nature of creative genius. At the heart of the film lies the mystery of inspiration – where do those elusive lightning bolts of genius come from? Why does a melody sometimes arrive fully-formed while at other times, it hides coyly out of the creator’s grasp?
Ravel himself pondered such riddles, shown rejecting the notion of muses while still surrounding himself with potential candidates from the smitten Misia to the sultry aura of the glove-adorned prostitute. In his mind, musical inspiration felt more supernatural, borne perhaps from the haunting sounds of the wind or factory machinery.
Yet Fontaine also reveals the more human side of creativity through Ravel’s chronic self-doubt and neuroses. His pursuit of perfection and rejection of anything less paralyzes him frequently. Outwardly soft-spoken, his inner critic attacks mercilessly. Some of the film’s most resonant moments come as we watch Ravel practically sabotage his chances of success at every turn – falling into despair whenever inspiration wanes. His personality contrasts starkly with the pulsing, propulsive rhythms of Boléro, hinting at a repression hidden beneath the lively notes.
Indeed, the film draws clever parallels between its merry-go-round structure, returning to unfinished creative business across the years, and the repeating musical phrases of Ravel’s famous composition. Just as the piece slowly builds tension across its relentless 15-minute run-time before reaching a thunderous climax, Fontaine ratchets up anticipation for this big breakthrough. When it finally arrives in a euphoric rush, we understand why Ravel might soon come to regret his runaway hit.
Its addictive, simple hooks overshadow his more nuanced works even as audiences crave this crowd-pleasing number again and again at every concert. Through Ravel’s bittersweet career denouement, forced to keep trotting out the same winners, Fontaine asks us to consider the cost of mainstream success to an uncompromising artist. Is the sacrifice of innovation worth the celebration of one gold-plated hit?
Capturing The Texture of Creativity
Beyond her sharp direction, Fontaine excels at crafting an atmospheric backdrop that transports viewers inside Ravel’s artistic headspace. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne lenses the film through a gauzy, dreamlike texture, as if we are viewing memories fade in and out. The camera often lingers in static tableaus with Ravel lost in thought, inviting us to eavesdrop on his internal world. Brief interludes escape to lush forests and rippling lakes, suggesting a romantic’s soul hidden within this otherwise fastidious personality.
Central to the technical success is leading man Raphaël Personnaz, who captures the essence of this eccentric genius with plenty of quirks but an understated performance that builds empathy. With his messy hair, constant cigarette, and air of defeat contrasted against sudden delighted smiles when inspiration strikes, Personnaz makes us feel like we know this man. We root for his talent to conquer paralysis.
Of course, the other star here is the music itself. Extended scenes show Ravel at the piano, more lively and confident here than elsewhere, while samples of Boléro and other compositions ripple through the soundtrack. The film begins to mirror the infectiously repeating melodies through its editing too in the later stretches as it manufactures creative déjà vu.
In the home stretch, the screen cuts quickly between Ravel’s conducting on stage, the dancer’s elegant choreography, the swells of the orchestra, and the reactions across the rapt audience as Boléro lands its final notes. We cannot help but get swept up too in this marriage of music, movement, and imagery – a testament to Fontaine’s reverence for the rhythms of Ravel’s art.
An Intimate Portrait of Creative Struggle
Boléro makes no claims to capture the definitive truth about Maurice Ravel’s life nor does it unravel the enigma of brilliance. Instead, Anne Fontaine offers her own interpretation of the man behind the music – an affectionate portrayal of an underappreciated artist weathering self-inflicted storms of perfectionism and doubt in pursuit of beauty. For all its patient wandering through creative doldrums, the film ultimately rewards our attention with a resonant character study about introspection and inspiration.
Like the thrilling simple harmonies of Ravel’s work, Fontaine builds deceptively complex compositions in her framing and storytelling. And she allows room for the notes to breathe, embracing music as the main character here.
While hardcore classical aficionados will enjoy this lush soundtrack the most, the universally relatable struggle for greatness makes this biopic accessible even to Ravel newcomers too. Come for the handsome period trappings, stay for the bittersweet victory of creation and the illumination of a complicated man who left one enduring legacy repeat its staccato offbeats into eternity. Boléro continues to reverberate long after the conductor lowers his baton – a testament to Fontaine’s tribute.
Boléro beautifully unravels the mystery behind a musical marvel while paying measured tribute to the intricate mind behind the notes. Fontaine helms this portrait of creative struggle with patience and compassion, surrounding a charming lead performance by period trappings as meticulously crafted as a Ravel composition. Come prepared to be transported through dreamy timelines and soaring symphonic crests for a satisfying, if slightly overly languid, peek at a melancholy maestro.
- Strong lead performance from Raphaël Personnaz
- Lovely classical piano pieces interwoven throughout
- Beautiful period details and cinematography
- Insightful themes related to creative struggle
- Patient, understated direction from Fontaine
- Slow, meandering pace at times
- Underdeveloped secondary characters
- May appeal mostly to classical music fans
- Sticks fairly close to standard biopic formulas