Messiaen: La liturgie de cristal: a film by Olivier Mille (1997)

LABELS: Juxtapositions/Ideale Audience
WORKS: La liturgie de cristal: a film by Olivier Mille (1997)
PERFORMER: Various musicians and composers
CATALOGUE NO: International DVD 9 DS 44 (NTSC system; Dolby 2.0; 4:3 picture format)
Creating a portrait of Messiaen, whether in words or pictures, is a tremendously difficult task, for his long career has so many facets – from his studies at the Paris Conservatoire to his experiences as a prisoner of war, musical studies as an ornithologist and pioneer of total serialism – that it can be difficult to see the wood for trees. Olivier Mille’s La liturgie de crista professes to be neither a comprehensive study, nor provide a chronological biography, but this 1997 film goes a long way to conveying the richness of Messiaen’s creativity and the paradox of being simultaneously central to 20th‑century musical thought and atypical of it. Messiaen himself is the principal contributor, in rarely seen footage spanning four decades, and, as we now know, some of what he said needed to be taken with a shovel of salt. There is also little on Messiaen’s career in the 1930s, for he barely spoke of it himself. Despite these inevitable caveats, Messiaen’s unassuming, quietly authoritative manner is engaging, and the numerous moments where his enthusiasm is given full rein are compelling. Indeed, anyone who thinks being a great composer in the middle of the last century was about being dry, abstract and po-faced need only see Messiaen giving surprisingly convincing vocal imitations of birdsongs, with radiant face and clearly aware that this also looks funny. The extensive extra clips of interviews with other composers and musicians are invaluable, if, like the subtitles, a little haphazard in presentation.