by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Before It’s Too Late — Mathieu Amalric [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 5, 2024

Mathieu Amalric is undoubtedly best known to audiences as one of the finest French actors of his generation, having maintained a fascinating career now spanning several decades but perhaps most notable for numerous collaborations with filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (as well as occasional forays into the American mainstream, including an appearance as a Bond villain and a Spielberg blockbuster). But for all his work in front of the camera, Amalric has also long sustained a simultaneous presence behind it as well, directing both fiction films as well as numerous documentaries. Amalric seems to have a special affinity for documenting artists at work; he has made films about cartoonist Joann Sfar, a trilogy of works on John Zorn, and two non-fiction shorts on singer Barbara Hannigan. It was this pre-existing relationship with Hannigan that led Amalric to collaborate with the renowned Emerson String Quartet, the subject of his latest film, Before It’s Too Late. The members of the quartet — Eugene Drucker (violin); Philip Setzer (violin); Lawrence Dutton (viola), and Paul Watkins (cello) — have decided to record one final album to cap off a 47-year run, after which they will retire and largely go their separate ways. Hannigan is invited to provide vocal accompaniment, and Amalric and his (very small) crew are on hand to document the rehearsal and recording process.

The result is a brief film (64 minutes) that eschews the most familiar forms of this sort of documentary in favor of a series of intimate encounters. There are no talking head interviews, no walls of text imparting bibliographical or historical information, no fawning admirers explaining why, exactly, this quarter is so important or so beloved. Instead, there is only the work itself. Indeed, Amalric seems interested only in the process, not the product. To that end, we learn about these people only through their work, which turns out to be a difficult yet joyous affair. Someone unfamiliar with the Quartet (like this writer) will still walk away from the film with a real sense of these people’s history, their easygoing, laid-back camaraderie and sense of humor, but also with a fastidious attention to detail (the men stop several times to discuss a beat, or a rhythm, or a specific note). For her part, Hannigan comes across as a real ham, constantly cracking jokes and generally goofing around for the camera. Of course, once the recording starts, she’s all business, her lovely voice adding a lovely heft to the proceedings.

As the film begins, Amalric is heard off-screen speaking to his sound engineer, Guido Tichelman. They are discussing the small cameras they are using, and how a small, red light is the indicator that they are up and recording. Tichelman then casually mentions the film’s primary tension; he says that his joy comes from his ears while Amalric’s stems from his eyes. Before It’s Too Late becomes, thus, an exploration of the differences between these two modes, but also their synthesis, the pleasures of the image and the music coming together to accentuate each other. This is a small, even minor film, perhaps even a “fan only” endeavor. But its pleasures are myriad.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024: Dispatch 2.