A LATE QUARTET: Bioethics and Grief

A Late Quartet had its USA premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It is directed by Yaron Zilberman and co-written with Seth Grossman. Set for release on November 2, 2012, it will be a force to contend with. Generally, I try not to be effusive when writing about films. In this case, I have to admit, I can't help myself. Of all of the films I've seen at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival; this is the only one that moved me uncontrollably to tears. The feeling evoked is most reminiscent of the intimacy one feels when caring for individuals and their families at critical points in their lives, particularly births and deaths.  A Late Quartet is a story of passion in the context of both.

This is a smart script.  The characters represent instruments in the Quartet; two violins, a viola and a cello, in reality and in the story line. The characters entrances into the composition are guided by sheet music, at once familiar and seen as though for the first time.  Christopher Walken, who I had seen the day before in a perfectly wonderful performance with Al Pacino in Stand Up Guys, surpasses even himself. In this film, the full range of his sensitivities and skill are apparent.  For me, he will never again be a convincing gangster or grifter. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who defies type casting, plays a surprisingly warm, vulnerable husband, father and second violin. Wallace Shawn, the founder of the Quartet, finds himself spiraling out of control because he falls prey to his own personality.

This is a big film for the two women who co-star in it.  In a season with only a handful of strong women's characters, Catherine Keener and Imogeen Poots both play sharp crisp roles. They well reflect both strength and the texture of women stretching the boundaries of love in a way that is uniquely specific to our gender. These are women’s roles bearing the strengths of this century.

How is this film significant in terms of bioethics? Bioethics is an organized way of thinking about conflicts between; what we know about medicine, what individuals want for themselves and what the collective thinks the other two are worth. There is medicine in the storyline, as well as grief, life threatening challenges and autonomous wishes and the need for transcendence. This work takes its lead from the String Quartet No.14 in C♯ minor, Op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven, an atypical seven movement quartet that is intrinsically connected to death.  On his death bed, Schumann requested to hear it.  The film, like the quartet, looks at loss from multiple angles; loss of life, love, health, passion and creativity. However, the story emerges from this abundance of loss with perseverance of passion. Fore-shadowing prepares the viewer for each characters arc. Set in warm rooms and a small concert stage, A Late Quartet is both ambitious and elegant in the style of a true New York movie and its classical music scene. 

A device of bioethics is the examination of the stages of grief to resolve associated conflicts in the process. The classical view of grief is the Kubler-Ross 5: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Instead, the James Hallenbeck 5 identifies tasks to be tackled during the developmental stage of life's end. People who are dying and those who love them need to say and hear: I'm sorry, I forgive you, thank you, I love you and, when it's time, goodbye.  The idea is that without focus on these processes, transcendence is not possible. Transcendence is the goal of dying and loss. In A Late Quartet, the Hollenbeck 5 form the opus. 

Finally, a variation of the Hettle Rule is attributed to cellist Pablo Casal; seek what works well instead of what does not, as a vehicle for healing. If there is one film to see this year, it is the visually smart, emotionally accessible, musically astounding, A Late Quartet.

A Late Quartet (35 mm) directed by Yaron Zilberman. USA.  2012
scheduled for release on November 2, 2012.