It’s a wonder that the fall of communism hasn’t spawned more lively black comedies like Goodbye Lenin!, Underground, and Children Of The Revolution: The inherent chaos of an entire way of life collapsing is fertile ground for bitter humor, and the attempts to survive in the aftermath naturally spawn a need for laugh-so-you-don’t-cry catharsis. The French-Romanian co-production The Concert gives in to this dynamic, but takes it further, with a strong bent toward happy-ending wish-fulfillment. It acknowledges grief, horror, and loss, but never lets it get in the way of a big, bright laugh.
Aleksei Guskov stars as a former Bolshoi superstar conductor removed from his position in 1980 for ignoring Brezhnev’s orders to eject the orchestra’s Jewish musicians. Thirty hard-fought years of alcoholism, depression, and recovery later, he works as a janitor at the Bolshoi, which puts him in the perfect position to intercept a fax inviting the Bolshoi’s orchestra to come perform in Paris. Rounding up old friends—and an old enemy, Valeriy Barinov, the party apparatchik who cut his final concert short 30 years ago—Guskov sets out to create a group that can impersonate the Bolshoi, travel to Paris, and present the Tchaikovsky concert he never got to finish in 1980.
Director and co-writer Radu Mihaileanu (who left his native Romania in 1980 under Nicolae Ceausescu, and took up residence in France) piles on the complications: a Jewish father-son duo in the orchestra looking for business opportunities in Paris, a huge Gypsy family along for the ride, an orphaned French superstar violinist (Inglorious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) whose parentage is clearly a secret in Guskov’s keeping. The first half of the film is a manic farce full of yelling and ridiculous comedy, as Barinov heaps vainglorious demands on the French, and Guskov tries to pull his makeshift orchestra together as they disintegrate into drunken revelry upon arrival in the west. But the second half finds a deeper drama and even a certain nostalgia for the communist era, as true-believer Barinov attempts to reignite communist fervor in Paris, and Guskov, also chasing a 30-year-old dream, comes to understand him a little better. The ending is so shamelessly corny that it’s clearly all a fantasy, as contrived and sentimental a miracle as the end of The Music Man, but far more triumphant. It’s a vindication for survivors of the fall of communism, and a promise, like any dark joke after tragedy—as long as we can keep laughing, everything will eventually be okay. It’s a preposterous claim, but by never slowing down or blinking, Mihaileanu sells it for all it’s worth.