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Mozart's Starring Role In 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'

Jan 7, 2013

Sunday Bloody Sunday is one of those films that lets you into the lives of believable, complicated characters. A handsome, self-centered young artist played by the actor/rock singer Murray Head is having simultaneous affairs with both an older woman (played with infinitely nuanced self-irony by Glenda Jackson) and an older man, a Jewish doctor (the touching Peter Finch), two intelligent adults who have mutual friends and even know each other slightly. Each of them is aware of his or her rival and accepts the necessity of sharing the young man, who seems to love them both, though neither is as important to him as they would like. The characters are equally unsentimental and realistic about their possibilities for happiness.

One of the elements of the film I most admire is director John Schlesinger's use of the sublime trio from Mozart's opera Cosí fan tutte as a running theme. The untranslatable title of the opera means something like, "They're all like that" or "That's what they all do." The doctor loves opera, and this is the music he plays for his lover and what he listens to when he's alone, waiting for him. But the music keeps recurring on the soundtrack as if it's in the heads of all the characters.

It's a trio of farewell. In the opera, two sisters think their lovers have been drafted. The two girls and their lovers' older friend are praying for smooth winds and calm seas. "May every element respond benignly to our desire." But Mozart interjects a disturbing harmony on the word desir — desire. Do these young women know what their real desires are? Do any of us?

The harmonic twist on the word for desire brings to the surface a twist of Mozart's plot. We know something the two sisters don't: Their lovers are only pretending to leave; their older friend has bet them that the girls won't be faithful. The boys have agreed to return in disguise, and each attempts to seduce the other's fiancee — and they succeed. Love is more complicated than any of them thought. At the end of the opera, Mozart and his devious librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, leave it up in the air about which couples will pair off. And the older man who perpetrates the bet doesn't seem any happier for winning it. This music expresses perfectly the poignant emotional uncertainties of Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Here's what Schlesinger himself has to say about his choice of music: "First of all, I like music very much. It's very much part of my life ... I know I wanted to use that trio from Mozart. It was just a lovely sound. It's simply a piece of music which I just liked, and that was the only reason I really used it, I suppose."

I'd say that if anything, Schlesinger was understating the importance of this music to his film, and that he intuited some very deep connection. Years later, Mike Nichols chose the same music for his film Closer, another film about couples changing partners. I'll bet anything that it was his homage to Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

John Schlesinger's landmark 1971 film "Sunday Bloody Sunday" has been reissued on Blu-ray. It became famous for showing two men kissing in a natural way and for tackling complex sexual issues. But for classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, Schlesinger's use of a famous piece of classical music is one of the film's profoundest elements. Here's Lloyd's review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is one of those films that lets you into the lives of believable, complicated characters. A handsome, self-centered young artist played by the actor/rock singer Murray Head is having simultaneous affairs with both an older woman - played with infinitely nuanced self-irony by Glenda Jackson - and an older man, a Jewish doctor, the touching Peter Finch, two intelligent adults who have mutual friends and even know each other slightly.

Each of them is aware of his or her rival and accepts the necessity of sharing the young man, who seems to love them both, though neither is as important to him as they would like. The characters are equally unsentimental and realistic about their possibilities for happiness. One of the elements of the film I most admire is Schlesinger's use of the sublime trio from Mozart's opera "Cosi fan tutte" as a running theme.

The untranslatable title of the opera means something like they're all like that or that's what they all do. The doctor loves opera, and this is the music he plays for his lover and what he listens to when he's alone, waiting for him. But the music keeps recurring on the soundtrack as if it's in the heads of all the characters.

It's a trio of farewell. In the opera, two sisters think their lovers have been drafted. The two girls and their lovers' older friend are praying for smooth winds and calm seas. May every element respond benignly to our desire. But Mozart interjects a disturbing harmony on the word desir - desire. Do these young women know what their real desires are? Do any of us?

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "COSI FAN TUTTE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing foreign language)

SCHWARTZ: The harmonic twist on the word for desire brings to the surface a twist of Mozart's plot. We know something the two sisters don't - their lovers are only pretending to leave. Their older friend has bet them that the girls won't be faithful. The boys have agreed to return in disguise, and each attempts to seduce the other's fiancee - and they succeed.

Love is more complicated than any of them thought. At the end of the opera, Mozart and his devious librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, leave it up in the air about which couples will pair off. And the older man who perpetrates the bet doesn't seem any happier for winning it. This music expresses perfectly the poignant emotional uncertainties of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

Here's what John Schlesinger himself has to say about his choice of music:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

JOHN SCHLESINGER: First of all, I like music very much. It's very much part of my life. So that the musical background of a film, I have quite specific ideas of the kind of sound that I may want before I stop, or during the movie. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" I knew that I wanted to use that particular trio from Mozart very early on in the film.

In fact, if you study the text of that song, though nobody really would know, you know, unless you really knew what that trio is about, which comes from "Cosi fan tutte" which is a song about do have a pleasant voyage. And there's two girls. Yes. And have fun and everything else. But it's from a kind of comedy of manners, that opera.

And I knew what the text was and I knew where it came in the opera, approximately. But it was just a lovely sound. It's a soothing piece of music which I just like, and that was the only reason I really used it, I suppose.

SCHWARTZ: I'd say that if anything, Schlesinger was understating the importance of this music to his film, and that he intuited some very deep connection. Years later, Mike Nichols chose the same music for his film "Closer," another film about couples changing partners. I'll bet anything that it was his homage to "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new Blu-ray edition of the 1971 film "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.