Director: Stéphanie Argerich
Cast: Martha Argerich, Annie Dutoit, Lyda Chen, Stephen Kovacevich
Watch Argerich online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Google Play
Say the words “classical music documentary” to most people and they’ll likely picture a BBC 4 series, or a film with lots of concert footage. Argerich – a portrait of Martha Argerich – is the opposite of that. If anything, it shirks concerts altogether.
That’s because it’s made by her daughter, Stéphanie Argerich. “Those performances were the moment when I lost her, when she got away from me,” she tells us early on. It’s an attitude that is born out of her relationship with her subject – and one that colours the whole of this documentary, resulting in something surprisingly ambiguous. Even the title has a negative streak: “Bloody Daughter”, which Stéphanie’s father, Stephen Kovacevich, claims is a term of affection.
That almost bitter tone extends throughout the home videos and honest interviews, which introduce us to Martha’s whole family. “My first try at motherhood wasn’t a success… but with you, I managed it, I think,” offers the mum, smiling. We hear of the distressing kidnapping of her daughter, Lyda, but also of how they pushed her towards the violin and not the piano, because it was her mother’s instrument. Even the happy memories seem tainted with a vague melancholy – “I would compete with my sister to see who could eat a lemon the fastest,” says Stéphanie. Most striking of all is the revelation of Kovacevich’s detached approach to being her father, which is caught in a brief, painful conversation at a dining room table.
All of this dysfunctional drama means that when we do see Argerich sit behind the keyboard, it carries much more emotional weight – something emphasised by the fact that so much of it is handheld footage of rehearsals. There’s a thrill in seeing the up-close technical skill of Martha’s fingers, as they hop up and down the scales, but also the infectious admiration that Martha’s family has for her talent. “It’s like running a lot, then not being able to walk,” she confesses, when speaking of a period when she played no piano at all.
The decidedly non-linear approach may make for more fragmented viewing than some fans would like from a documentary; it’s certainly a disappointment that we never get to see a full concert piece caught on camera. But this scrap-book album is a refreshing change of key from the often sanitised approach of biographies: Argerich isn’t a hagiography of a musical legend, but a personal portrait of a mother, who happens to play the piano. If performances are where Stéphanie loses her mum, it’s in the mess of real life that we find her.