The Audition (Weisse, 2019)

The easiest film to compare to The Audition is Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

Both films feature overbearing music teachers and their students who must come to decide how far they are willing to trust those teachers to further their goals and advance their dreams. The most obvious difference is that Chazelle’s work is seen from the eyes of the student, while Ina Weisse’s film is a showcase for Nina Hoss as the ever-demanding teacher.

J. K. Simmons won an Oscar for his turn as the impossible-to-please music teacher, but the fact that Whiplash focused on the student allowed his character to be a cross between a one-note sadist and an inscrutable black box. Even when his motives were revealed, we were never sure if they were fact or facade.

That is less so with Anna Bronsky, whose motives are ambiguous but not quite as opaque. Hoss’s violinist opens The Audition by pushing for the admission of a marginal student into the music academy where those can’t do at a world class level can still teach. She becomes the boy’s white knight, waving away the objections of the other teachers, including the colleague who instructs Anna’s own son.

Despite being in nearly every scene, Anna remains a bit of a mystery herself, perhaps because she is a bit of a mystery to herself. Does she want the new student as a surrogate for her own child who has the audacity to care for something other than music? There is something intoxicating about an eager student. Then again, Anna is on the cusp of reviving her own musical dreams; she’s just been invited to rehearse with a group of peers in advance of a concert hall recital. So perhaps she wants to phone it in at work so that she can concentrate on her own artistic development? Hoss deftly projects the restlessness and irritability of inarticulate longing resulting in perpetual disappointment.

The Audition received solid if unspectacular reviews out of the festival circuit and is getting ready for virtual release in selected areas. I enjoyed it more than the more-lauded Shirley, another release about a talented female artist whose personal woes threatened to overshadow her artistic talent. Hoss plays Anna as brittle but not fragile, and her performance holds the film together. As her student gets closer to the recital that will determine whether or not he can stay in school, Anna’s intensity increases and her student’s seeming passivity appears to grate on her.

I say “seeming” because he does everything she demands of him — upping rehearsal times from two hours a day to four and endlessly rehearsing the same section of music as the teacher tries in vain to articulate what the missing ingredient is that separates technique from artistry. Anna’s student is both antagonist and foil, and it certainly appears that his inability to verbalize his desire stokes her fury more than any genuine lack of emotion.

The Audition carefully places the kindling for an explosive conclusion, but the film never quite ignites. For me, the end was satisfying because the final scene told me what I needed to know about what was driving the teacher. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it made sense. If the overall piece never reaches an emotional pitch that would make that final scene emotionally powerful rather than just artistically admirable, it still provided a context to watch one of the screen’s great actresses in her prime.

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