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Mélanie (Julie Richalet), the 10-year-old daughter of a small-town butcher, seems to have a special gift for the piano. She takes the Conservatory entrance exam, but fails after being distracted by the thoughtless behavior of the chairwoman of the jury (Catherine Frot), a well-known concert pianist. Bitterly disappointed, Mélanie gives up the piano. Some ten years later, the adult Melanie (Déborah François, L'Enfant) befriends the pianist's husband (Pascal Greggory) and later becomes her page turner, waiting patiently for a chance to take revenge. Directed and co-written by Denis Dercourt.

  The Page Turner

One thing I have learned: When an actor plays a musician, the first shot must show the hands. It must be a master shot—an uninterrupted sequence with no cuts. Then the audience will think: “It really is him playing! And all the notes!” If you don’t get that out of the way right at the start, the audience will spend the rest of the film wanting to see the hands instead of looking at the face.

That’s why I always arrange for the actor to play the first piece of music for real. Most of them have never played an instrument before, of course. But that doesn’t matter. With time and training, anyone can stumble through a piece of music, whether it’s for piano, the violin or the cello. The actor may make a hash of it, but that doesn’t matter. On the actual soundtrack, it will be a real musician playing. But at least the audience can see that the actor is actually performing. I know they’re all thinking: “Show me the hands!”

Ninety percent of my initial rehearsal time with the actor is spent on this first piece of music. Since I’m a professor at a conservatory and a concert violist myself, I know how to teach a piece that someone is seeing for the first time. I also know what kind of music will look more difficult than it really is. If I’ve cast someone who actually knows how to play or turns out to have some natural talent, I make sure to pick music that is a little too difficult, so that the actor will always be slightly uneasy, no matter how much rehearsal there is. When I say “action,” the actor must feel a frisson of stage fright, just like a real musician does.

The funny thing is, most actors become obsessed with playing the music, and end up wanting to do everything for real. That’s what happened with Catherine Frot, who plays a famous concert pianist in The Page Turner. Catherine, a very well-known and popular star in France, had to work quite hard to learn the music that the composer wrote specifically for her first scene. She managed that, though, and then she insisted on trying to learn all the notes in the rest of the music in the film, which ran from Schubert to Shostakovich. I had planned to cheat with these pieces, hiding her hands most of the time with careful cuts and camera angles. But in the end, I didn’t have to. The audience could see her entire performance—just as long as they didn’t hear it.

What’s great about working on a piece of music with an actor for a long time far in advance of shooting is that you can help the actor prepare without ever talking about the story or the performance itself. With really good actors, it’s better not to try to explain too much, or to analyze the psychology of the character. They have to come to that on their own. Instead, we concentrate on the position of the back, on the arms and on the face. The character develops a posture, and the personality emerges on its own.

The music itself can help convey the rhythms of the storyline, as well. Music contains the same alternation of tension and relaxation, the same changes of pace, the same pauses and climaxes that you find in a well-crafted novel. Classical music uses the succession of chords to create moments of tension that are resolved into relaxation. But in late 19th and 20th century music, chords sometimes never release their tension completely. In the terminology of music, one says that the chords don’t resolve but remain in suspension. Some of the best modern films create their own suspense with storylines that never completely resolve.

I’ve always liked to make films about musicians, and it’s through the music that I find my approach to direction. Present the exposition of your themes with elegance and clarity. Develop them with energy but keep the pacing varied. Build to climaxes with a relentless inner logic, then give the audience a brief chance to rest before another theme enters to create new complications. And end with a resounding climax.

As for the actors, give them enough room to bend their elbows—and just show them the hands.