Arthouse cinema isn’t generally inclined toward “Alien vs. Predator”-style franchise mashups, but if some kind of icy faceoff were engineered between the troubled, seething music instructors of Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” all bets would be off. As played with customary, finely razored emotional control by Nina Hoss, violin teacher Anna Bronsky might seem more outwardly functional than Isabelle Huppert’s lonely, repressed paraphiliac Erika Kohut: In a stable middle-class marriage with a gifted son following in her footsteps, Anna seemingly hasn’t much to complain about besides her own stifled musical dreams. Yet the old “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” maxim takes on more dangerous implications when her dedication to one underdog student veers into obsessive territory; Weisse’s gripping, cool-blooded drama upends all manner of inspirational-educator clichés.
Appearing in San Sebastian’s official competition following a low-key world premiere in Toronto, “The Audition” looks and sounds more genteel than it is: A disquieting strain of bad behavior courses beneath its tasteful, grownup classicism. That balance of serenity and subversion should help this Franco-German production rack up arthouse sales across Europe and possibly beyond, as will the reliably classy presence of Hoss — more at home and command here than she was in her other fall-festival vehicle, the horror-tinged “Pelican Blood.”
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From the opening scene, which sees nervous pre-teen violinist Alexander (Ilja Monti) auditioning for the admissions panel at an elite Berlin conservatory, Weisse and Daphne Charizani’s original script deftly wrongfoots viewers as to just what kind of mentor Anna is. When she stands up for him over more skeptical colleagues, effectively appointing herself to nurture his potential, she seems an entirely benevolent figure; when she briskly evicts Alexander’s mother from her classroom, over the woman’s protests that she needs to “follow his progress,” it appears that she’s liberating the meek lad from more overbearing influences. Yet the more time and attention Anna invests in Alexander — to the growing chagrin of her own fiddle-playing 10-year-old son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) — the more oppressive and irresponsible her teaching becomes. “Sometimes quantity creates intensity,” she snarls at him as she ramps up both the pressure and the rehearsal hours, somehow not seeing (or not caring?) how close the kid is to breaking point.
It’s not clear exactly what she’s hoping to get out of Alexander, whose playing is promising if not prodigious, though perhaps she identifies some of her own flaws in his. Anna is plagued by a form of stage fright that cut short her music career as a young woman, which flares up again when her kindly cellist colleague Christian (Jens Albinus) implores her to join his string quintet. In the least convincingly developed of the film’s various spidering strands of discord, Christian and the decision-averse Anna begin a tentative affair. Her increasingly tense, fractious home life with the envious Jonas and her exasperated French luthier husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian), however, is sufficiently well-drawn that this extramarital dalliance feels a mere melodramatic sideshow.
As it is, Anna has more than enough issues for Hoss to work through in exquisitely painful detail, in what is easily her best, most magnified performance showcase since her run of collaborations with director Christian Petzold. Hoss has a particular gift for withholding feeling on screen, letting it instead seep into her quivering, snappish body language while that face maintains its proud composure. The supporting ensemble is in tune — in particular Mishiev, whose slow-simmering sullenness must shoulder some key dramatic turns later on — though this is Hoss’s solo: The taut human timebomb she makes of Anna is what makes the film consistently, anxiously engrossing even as the script goes through some soapier motions.
That said, she doesn’t go off in quite the way you might expect, in a climactic crescendo that veers into full-tilt tragedy but could afford to wallow a bit more in its (and Anna’s) elegant discomfort. Echoing a recurrent fault of Alexander’s playing, the film rushes its notes a little as it gathers momentum: Hoss, at least, is calmly credible enough to sell some pretty tight emotional turnarounds. Otherwise, Weisse’s own form is unobtrusively immaculate, with Judith Kaufmann’s sober, autumn-toned lensing perfectly matching the stately tone of the Bach-heavy soundtrack: “The Audition” is often lovely to listen to, though you can never forget the human strain behind those strings.