Alex is getting his body worked over by his coach. And he’s getting a pep talk, the usual stuff—let go of the stress, the people will love you. Alex could be a boxer before a big fight. He’s about to go play piano on stage. “Chopin will be alive,” the coach says. “You’ll be playing for him.”
At several points during Pianoforte, Jakub Piątek’s mesmerizing account of the 2021 edition of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, I felt I could be watching a sports documentary. A slim young man limbers up with his entire body. Poland’s Marcin jumps up and down, then takes the stage at a light run. Later, we see him use an app to meaure if a vigorous piano exercise to warm his muscles has taken him to 110 bpm. As China’s Hao plays in his room, his coach massages his shoulders. When Russian pianist Eva receives seven specific and different instructions in seven seconds from her coach, it reminded me of the demanding practice scenes with the gymnast—also named Eva—in Věra Chytilová's 1963 film Something Different.
The Chopin Competition has been held 18 times since 1927. It takes place over 21 days, with no break. It’s a prestigious tournament for young players, and competition is intense. One pianist, dissatisfied with his own performance, rants entertainingly about his opponents’ flawless recitals. “They’re like CIA or marines, you know? They wake up early morning and do push-ups. Then they do etudes.” Leonora, the sunniest character in the documentary, describes it as the ‘Olympics of piano’, adding: “If you win the 40,000 (Euro), you might be using it to go to therapy.”
Leonora says this jokingly, but it’s probably not far from the truth. At the level these pianists are playing, where a flub or two could mean elimination, mental fortitude becomes crucial. At one point we see Hao—who’s still in high school—do ‘mental practice’, sitting in front of the piano without touching the keys. As the film progresses, you get a sense of who might handle the pressure and who might crack. It’s especially evident in 17-year-old Eva, who keeps advancing in the competition but never seems to find the calm she’s looking for. “Flat. Everything is flat,” her coach says. “The piano or…?” someone asks. Eva just looks on, her eyes searching for an answer that isn’t forthcoming.
Pianoforte is composed and handsome, far from the Pennebaker tradition of musical verité. Unlike another great Polish documentary, All These Sleepless Nights (2016), it doesn’t redraw the boundaries of the fly-on-the-wall film. Its success is almost entirely derived from how sympathetic and interesting it makes its protagonists. There’s Marcin, who resembles a young Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing for his cat, who’s more interested in pizza. There’s the straight-shooting Michelle, who packs off the filmmakers with a firm “Now it's time”. We see Hao practice in a tiny apartment in Guangzhou, his father looking on, his mother cooking. The ease of the film belies the work that must have gone into building relationships with so many young musicians, earning their trust till they’re comfortable with being recorded at their most vulnerable.
The editing by Ula Klimek-Piątek is a masterclass of precision and canny choices. Five minutes into the film, we haven't heard anyone play. There's a quick series of shots showing the participants poised to play the first note. We focus on Leonora. Her fingers descend. We expect Chopin. Instead, as the film’s title appears onscreen, it's the rumbling beat of Elephant by Tame Impala, a choice so witty and so perfectly executed, it made me laugh. Later, there’s another musical montage, set to Arcade Fire’s Rococo, as the pianists unwind, stroll, play football. Here, too, is smart little decision: as the song explodes, the camerawork does too, turning frenetic for once as it follows Alex bearing down on goal.
I would’ve been happy with any of the protagonists winning, so appealing does Piątek make them. However, the stakes are clearly the highest for Eva. The film knows this, focusing on her as the final results are announced. That scene is wrenching, but then Pianoforte is full of dreams deferred and denied. Vivian, Hao’s coach, was a talented young player herself, but, as she says ruefully, she never had the ambition for competition. Michelle predicts she won’t advance in the tournament beyond that night’s performance, saying “I don’t believe in unicorns.” But even in defeat, there's grace. A musician from China, eliminated in an early round, is at the airport. He sees a piano. You’d think he’d be sick of pianos by then, but his face lights up. He sits down and plays, beautifully. A small crowd gathers; one woman seems overcome. Michelle would roll her eyes at the sentiment, but to be able to move people this way must be its own reward.