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'Song for Martin'

'Song for Martin' sad tune about Alzheimer's from Sweden

Friday, September 27, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It starts with a rare error -- a mistake on the orchestra's sheet music -- from the great maestro. Much later, the composer will not be able to think of his longtime manager's name. And then, he unintentionally calls his bride by his former wife's name.

'A Song for Martin'

RATING: PG-13 for sexuality, thematic elements, some language, partial nudity. Subtitled.

STARRING: Sven Wollter, Viveka Seldahl.

DIRECTOR: Bille August.


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No one realizes it, but Alzheimer's disease has begun gnawing away at the memory and brilliant brain of the famous conductor and composer Martin Fischer (Sven Wollter). Bille August's "A Song for Martin," in Swedish with English subtitles, introduces us to Fischer and the talented violinist who becomes his wife early in the picture.

After triumphing together on the concert stage, the middle-aged Martin and Barbara Hartman (Viveka Seldahl) soon fall in love, divorce their spouses, marry and blissfully honeymoon in Morocco. "Promise me you'll never leave me," Barbara asks, unaware of just how Martin will leave her. He will physically be by her side, but he will be unable to remember the day of the week or that the birthday candle isn't consumed with the cake. Or that the much-anticipated opera he has been composing may never be completed.

"Song for Martin" arrives here seven months after "Iris," which was based on the memoirs of John Bayley, husband of the late philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch. That film, which won an Academy Award for Jim Broadbent as Bayley, depicted a four-decade love affair with two sets of actors portraying the leads.

Iris' husband could take some comfort in the years of love he had shared with his wife. In the fictional "Song for Martin," the couple are closer to their middle or twilight years when the disease changes the contours of their young marriage. And unlike the often saintly husband in "Iris," Barbara gets angry -- that she cannot enjoy a leisurely meal or a vacation getaway or the music at which she once excelled.

"Song for Martin" is a little obvious in its symbolism at times; Barbara stops and later restarts the wall clock Martin obsessively checks against his watch. When Martin flounders in the sea and begins to pull his wife down, they both are drowning in other ways. And erudite lunch-table chatter about "The Magic Flute," written when Mozart "felt the touch of death" says Martin, foreshadows what is to come.

But "Song for Martin" is a heartbreaking, not always easy to watch, love story, with an especially wonderful performance by Seldahl. Wollter, who reminded me a bit of Robert Culp, doesn't achieve the brilliance of Judi Dench in "Iris," who effortlessly moved through the stages of her disease and who was given the luxury of being shown in the "before" as well as the "after."

This import, adapted by August from an Ulla Isaksson novel, demonstrates how unpredictable Alzheimer's can be, how longtime friends may disappear, how the most devoted caregivers can only do so much and how love endures beyond memory. And how sometimes, movies can be so sad that you want to slink out the door.

"Song for Martin," it turns out, was among Seldahl's last movies. One of Sweden's most popular actresses and Wollter's real-life companion, she died of cancer in November at age 57. She leaves behind a vivid, vital portrait of a woman who finds belated, brief and bittersweet happiness as she moves quickly from the health to the sickness part of her marriage vows.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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