Music: an elliptical Oedipal shape-shifter from Angela Schanelec

The German auteur’s latest is a typically enigmatic affair, drawing loosely on the myth of Oedipus to spin a series of poetic, open-ended visual riddles.

Aliocha Schneider (foreground, right) as Jon in Music (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

In the myth of Oedipus, the swollen-footed king of Thebes, there is both the certainty of the prophecy concerning him and the disaster caused by the unknown. It is a story based on omission and lack: Oedipus does not know who his real parents are, and so kills one and marries the other unwittingly. For director Angela Schanelec, it proves a fitting tale to draw on, one very much conducive to the German auteur’s formal techniques and interests in absence, distance and theatre.

Her latest film, Music, uses the foundational elements of this Greek tragedy – its national setting, the patricide and incest, the catastrophe that occurs once the truth is discovered – but it is the central question of omission that consumes Schanelec’s film. There are narrative absences, jumps in time, and an absence of expected logic; Schanelec’s Oedipus, called Jon (played by Aliocha Schneider), is the same age as his birth parents Iro (Agathe Bonitzer) and Lucian (Theodore Vrachas), for example, when the drama unfolds. Drama may be the correct word in the Ancient Greek sense, but the film adheres to no contemporary perceptions of the dramatic. It is slow and meandering, oblique and opaque; it is frustratingly brilliant.

The film opens with an approaching storm, clouds that engulf the frame, and the cry of a newborn baby. Husband and wife Elias and Merope (Argyris Xafis and Marisha Triantafyllidou respectively) find the child, Jon, and raise him as their own. His tiny feet are blistered and bleeding, and Merope attempts to soothe them with sea water. Once grown, Jon’s cut-glass cheekbones and thin frame give him a statuesque quality; in this he resembles Iro, whose striking features seem carved from ivory. Most of Schanelec’s visual choices in the film convey this sense of poise and form; few other filmmakers can make something as simple as filling a glass with water look so elegant. Costuming is keenly used, too – many Schanelec films use items of clothing to make her characters more legible, but in Music she also plays with the theatrical, giving Jon and the other prisoners buskin-like platform sandals as part of their sandy-toned uniforms.

One of the filmmaker’s temporal shifts seems to occur just before Jon is due to be released from prison. A momentary scene depicts him teaching a class of children while Iro attends to some others, but what appears to be their own crying baby interrupts the lesson. It feels like a flash into the future of Jon and Iro’s relationship, before returning to some sense of linearity – Jon’s release day arrives and their new life as a couple begins. They have children together and spend time with Elias and Merope. It’s also unclear what year any of this may be happening; overheard commentary from a football game seems to position part of the narrative in 2006 but otherwise there are few clues.

But this, and much else in the film, are riddles to which the anti-Sphinx Schanelec doesn’t provide answers. They are simply there to be pondered, to offer symbolic and poetic meanings and non-meanings. In one scene, Iro helps a colleague with the crossword clue “another word for mirror, 6 letters”, to which she responds, “dream”. This line crystallises something about the film’s internal logic, which draws links between the oneiric and the real, personal reflections and wandering mythology. To try to pin down this thinking and force it into immediate clarity is antithetical to Schanelec’s storytelling mode.

In this story, Iro’s path follows that of Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother and wife, who eventually commits suicide upon realising the true nature of her relationship. But Schanelec alters Oedipus’s path by not depicting Jon gouging out his own eyes in despair. Instead, Jon leans into music. His eyesight may worsen slightly but his voice grows in strength, singing the folksy songs of Canadian musician Doug Tielli as Jon moves into a new phase of life. There is a suggestion of a kind of repentance, or self-sacrifice, for Jon, but this is averted when, in the final moments of the film, he is seen dancing and singing, nymph-like, in an idyllic forest, and is thus liberated.

Music is at once an undeniable visual delight on a frame-by-frame level and a potent challenge that demands that we embrace what we cannot see. Oedipus was blinded, and so are we as viewers, feeling around in the darkness of omission. And what a thrill to do so, to be captured by the director’s images and pushed away, compelled to know more and liberated ourselves by her refusal to give.