An 80-minute juggernaut of existential tumult, composer Gustav Mahler’s second symphony stems from humankind’s eternal pursuit of purpose amid the trials and tribulations of being. Its performance demands a mammoth amount of onstage and offstage personnel, including brass in the wings, a full chorus and multiple soloists. To listen is to hear the heft of human weight thrown against the door of the universe. To reach its end is to never know for certain whether those hinges gave even an inch. As with life itself, all the strength is in the striving.
Mahler’s work has become colloquially known as the Resurrection Symphony — largely due to the content of choral text in its fourth and fifth movements, but also due to momentarily revealed authorial inspiration on Mahler’s part. Six years after the symphony’s premiere, Mahler incorporated a complementary narrative leaflet for a 1901 performance. In it, Mahler says the first movement represents a funerary inquiry about life after death, the second conjures fond memories from the life of the deceased, the third resigns itself to a feeling that life is a fruitless endeavor, the fourth yearns for relief from meaningless existence, and the fifth (after revisiting earlier motifs of questioning and doubt) ends with “a fervent hope for everlasting transcendent renewal.”
Mahler later withdrew the leaflet from circulation for reasons that can only be speculated. Perhaps he felt it better allowed the music and choral text to blast its own life through the bones of his ideas. Maybe he was disinterested in a rigid, single interpretation of creative intent; perhaps, in the conclusion of the Resurrection Symphony, you sense a triumphant blasting of that door off its hinges. No right. No wrong. Again, strength in the striving.
Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and all of its attendant concerns and connotations figure prominently into director / actor / producer / co-writer Bradley Cooper’s magnificent new film Maestro and its depiction of the marital life of composer / conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein (Carey Mulligan). Opening in select theaters Wednesday and available to stream on Netflix on December 20, the film places its own program notes front and center in a quote attributed to Leonard Bernstein: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” It’s instantly clear Cooper’s follow-up to 2018’s A Star is Born will not be a biopic based on anodyne annotation but a knotty bramble of verve, feeling and multitudes.
Cooper and company question how much beauty there really can be in the last word next to the flood of them that flows between the start and end. In penning its score of the life this couple shared, Maestro perpetually obscures and obliterates lines between artifice and actuality, between affection and ambition — dynamics behind which there can be all manner of impression and interpretation.
Who needs a beat-for-beat biopsy of Bernstein and Montealegre’s résumés, another tale of inverse creative trajectories, or a reductive, outmoded story about the female sacrifice required for great men or great art? Maestro is mercifully none of those. With symphonic structure and pace, it’s a treatise on the vigors and veneers of Bernstein and Montealegre’s respective confidence (or lack thereof), the psychopathy and narcissism of their certainties, the fermatas they found all too briefly before the fates that awaited them, and the tragedy of lovers realizing too late they treated one another like projects to complete rather than brambles to embrace.
The screenplay (by Cooper and Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer) does provide basics like Bernstein’s big break in 1943 filling in to lead the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, palling around with contemporaries like Jerome Robbins and Aaron Copland, Bernstein and Montealegre’s initial meeting and courtship, and references to career-defining works like West Side Story. But even such building blocks are punctuated by beautifully shot flights of fancy that rocket you inside the characters’ racing hearts: the transition between Bernstein’s dingy apartment and Carnegie Hall when Bernstein gets the call to fill in; a Central Park knoll that resembles a mossy swamp on which the couple are floating; the initially cavernous, dim stage on which Montealegre runs stage-play lines with Bernstein (a space, notably, where she knows she’s the dominant scene partner); and, most impressively, Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free as a metaphor for the mountains Bernstein and Montealegre knew would stand in the way of a happy marriage but which they believed they could move anyway.
Maestro’s mind is less on redemptive comfort and rote hagiography than the reality that struck this husband and wife as the lives they’d carefully compartmentalized for themselves were upended. Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique return to the invasive close-ups of A Star is Born but to an effect of chilly reserve rather than swooning, consuming warmth. There’s a similar effect in Libatique’s largely black-and-white color scheme, with shadows demanding careful study for what they reveal or conceal and a slight blue-faded tinge that evokes the fallible nature of our aging memories. Once again, Cooper also has an eye for unfussy but poignant details in the frame, like how lobby stanchions separate Montealegre into her own lane, a moment where Bernstein fades into an apartment’s mahogany background, faint handprints on sliding-door glass as the only humanity on display during a careless conversation, or a moment of one character folding paper in a futile effort to summon comfort from entropy.
Cooper and Mulligan also disappear into their personas beyond prostheses and aging makeup. It’s because the performers fearlessly and formidably dive together into the depths of Maestro’s thorniest contradiction — the clash between creation and destruction amid people who treated human connection like compositions or creative choices to be corralled. Inseparable in how one actor’s turn inspires the other, Cooper and Mulligan illustrate the gradual insanity as Bernstein and Montealegre chip away at each other without regard for collateral damage. It culminates in an intimate Thanksgiving confrontation (perfectly blocked, framed and performed) that crackles with craven desires they’ve courted for so long. Watching their relationship curdle is not so much a boring indictment of marriage as a homogenizing institution or an easy hand-waved expression of Bernstein’s repressed bisexuality. It’s a lament for people who, for too long, saw only opportunity and cost in one another and lost the reason for their connection — barely perceptible pianissimos regrettably outside their hearing range.
Maestro is also judicious about depicting Cooper as conductor — generally reserving it for the moment when Bernstein conducted Mahler’s second symphony at the Ely Cathedral in the United Kingdom and when it’s most meaningful to the narrative the film has built. It’s a perfect parable for Bernstein’s attempt to reconcile his pursuit of divine inspiration and commercial success and an expressly unique moment of outward joy for someone whose internal energy often imploded. It’s a triumph tempered by the chill of realizing there are no longer dreams into which he can retreat, no more balletic interior rhapsodies to dramatize. By this point, Maestro is in full color but aesthetically draining — the inevitable vicissitudes of life taking over, the genuine remorse and regret this husband and wife feel at not rekindling at least an emotional passion sooner, the believable ways in which they fall back into more collegial methods of control. Although to less socially ruinous ends than Killers of the Flower Moon, this is a similar depiction of love as mutually assured destruction, and Cooper and Mulligan excel at depicting the erosive effect of affection when approached that way.
When Maestro does yield to familiar circumstances in its final act, it does so without the sort of party’s-over showmanship that sank Babylon or the dime store psychology that torpedoed Blonde. Maestro knows life is largely a work of fleeting glory and encroaching grotesquery (further evidenced sonically and visually through a last-minute, left-field needle drop). As with Mahler in his removal of the explanatory program for the Resurrection Symphony, it’s simply not interested in rigid interpretations of renewal and rejuvenation. You might hate that. You might love that. By finding formidable strength in the striving that surrounds us all, Maestro is one of 2023’s best films.