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Mistaken identity

Mistaken identity

Hewett, Ivan

CINEMA has always had a yen for portraying the torments of the flawed, tormented genius, whose art is bought at the cost of a tragic downfall. Remember Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, staring wild-eyed at the Provencal landscape as he flails at his canvas, the bandaged ear becoming ever bloodier? The image of the artist as an dme maudit was magnified by the magical aura of the Hollywood star that played him (and how many other stars have also proved to have a tragic flaw, gleefully revealed by the very same newspapers and magazines that elevated them?). Musicians and composers have provided especially fertile territory for cinematic mythmaking. In the 1970s Ken Russell turned Liszt into a rock star avant la lettre, and Tchaikovsky into a tormented neurotic. More recently Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved revived the image of Beethoven as a `wounded Titan’, pounding the keys in an effort to hear his own music. The pattern is always the same – the musician or composer swings between the ecstasy of creation or performance, and an agonising sense of solitude brought on by that very same gift, which bars the way to ordinary happiness.

Jacqueline du Pre on the face of it had all the right qualities for the Hollywood treatment. Her talent had a magical, inexplicable quality. With her flying golden hair and pugnacious expression, she seemed like a `wild child’ of the cello. (Genius, in the cinema, never needs to go to school or to practise.) She had a complicated love life involving another equally charismatic musician, and her sister’s husband (another essential attribute of the cinematic genius is at least one shocking amorous liaison). Like Keats, she was cut down in her prime, before anyone had the chance to suggest that she was past her best. But unlike Keats, the illness that destroyed her gift didn’t kill her; she lingered on for another fifteen years, thus adding another mythical dimension the genius whose talent is stifled by a recalcitrant body, like Heine on his `mattress grave’ (du Pre couldn’t rise above her multiple sclerosis the way Beethoven rose above his deafness).

However, the new film Hilary and Jacqui disclaims any mythologising tendency The director Anand Tucker says: `People have canonised Jacqueline du Pre, yet she was not simply a happy, beautiful person who made sublime music [… ] She was a complicated person like all of us, and we wanted to try and do justice to that.’ The film signals its intentions to reflect that complexity by telling a good part of the story twice over – once from Hilary’s point of view, and then through Jacqui’s. But its claims to impartiality are undermined by its heavy reliance on A genius in the family, the biography of du Pre by her sister Hilary and brother Piers. The book was much criticised for its unflattering portrayal of Jacqueline as demanding, sexually predatory and emotionally infantile. It seemed to many like an act of revenge by the two siblings forced to grow up in Jacqui’s shadow – an act to which Tucker’s film has now become an accomplice. Musicians who knew and worked with du Pre have rushed to her defence, saying that the film is a slur on her memory, and bears no relation to the generous, warm person they knew.

WHAT doesn’t seem to have occurred to Julian Lloyd Webber, Pinchas Zukerman, Lord Menuhin, et al. is that Jacqueline du Pre might have been one kind of person with them, and a very different kind of person with her sister. And probably a third kind with her teacher William Pleeth, and a fourth when she slept with her sister’s husband. Once again we see the mythologising tendency at work. These musicians might be willing to accept that ordinary people aren’t always what they seem, and that their private lives might not bear too close examination. But because Jacqueline du Pre gave out such a magical radiance when on stage, or when teaching, they can’t bear the thought that that radiance didn’t illumine every nook and cranny of her life. One can sympathise with this. It is a terrible disappointment to discover that one’s idols might have feet of clay – which is why it’s best not too get too close to them. Better to keep unsullied the noble image of George Steiner one gets from his majestic prose, rather than see him in a television debate with a rival like Christopher Ricks, where one sees the great man descend to petty spite and point-scoring.

So should we welcome the film, and others like it, for revealing the flawed human being behind the inspiring image? If the film really were a picture of Jacqueline du Pre in all her complexity, the answer would be yes – because, as Anand Tucker points out, her achievement would then be all the more moving. But in fact the film demolishes one myth only to make way for another. Instead of the radiant, ever-generous, ever-beautiful Jacqui, we now have the `wild child’ Jacqui, decked out with `real-life’ events to lend her a spurious documentary verisimilitude. She’s introduced to us at the beginning of the film as a child, and she never leaves that state – in fact the point is underlined by the symmetry between an early scene where the young Jacqui deliberately misses a musical cue to draw attention to herself, and a later scene when, stricken with multiple sclerosis, she does the same. Not once do we see her behaving with any of the rationality, tact or reflectiveness that you would expect at least in some degree from a grown-up. -But Jacqueline du Pre must have possessed those qualities in abundance – otherwise how could she have attracted an intelligent man like Barenboim, or been praised by Pierre Boulez as `an instinctive musician, but one in whom instinct has its own logic’? Boulez’s remark points to the real mystery of Jacqueline du Prd, one which Anand Tucker’s film – fortunately – leaves untouched.

Ivan Hewett

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Spring 1999

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