Stéphanie Argerich on Martha Argerich: the documentary

Bloody Daughter COVER“Art Monster”. In Jenny Offill’s acclaimed Dept. of Speculation, it is the ideal against which the narrator looks at her own life and finds it wanting, overcome as it is by the demands of motherhood, relationship and domesticity. This is what I wanted to be, the narrator reminds herself: pursue my art at the expense of everything else, be the best I can be, and not be concerned about the rest. As many a man had done before, and as so few women have – or have been mythologized as having done. Motherhood is an absolute demand on woman, the point where the purpose of her life gets hijacked, and therefore should be rejected absolutely.

I was thinking a lot about this dichotomy while watching the documentary that Martha Argerich’s daughter Stéphanie Argerich made about her, Bloody Daughter. A camera had been given to her as a play-activity, something to keep the child busy, and the footage included in the documentary spans decades and is always from a uniquely intimate vintage point. Most of the footage however is from the last couple of years: candid observations of Argerich getting into a (usual, Stéphanie explains) pre-performance state, or talking to her longtime manager about “something missing from her life”, or trying out food on various travels, or rehearsing, along with the talking-head sequences in which Stéphanie’s personal questioning of her mother on life, art and family may lead them to a bout of travel, say, to Argentina, on the traces of Argerich’s parents. It’s a well-crafted mass of material in which we are gradually introduced to Argerich’s other two adult daughters—there’s a particularly interesting story around her oldest—and Stéphanie’s mostly absent if friendly father, pianist Stephen Kovacevich. The somewhat unfortunate title of the documentary comes from one of his jokes—the (distant) father gets to keep his naming rights, accidentally.

Argerich had her three daughters with three different men—one of whom was Charles Dutoit—but with the exception of the first daughter, the parenting tended to fall back to her, with fathers absenting themselves sooner or later. She lost custody of her oldest, but reconnected with her later in life, and some of the aspects of that reconnecting process are shown in the film. From the way the three young women speak of and with their mother, it’s clear how much they love her and what an important part of their lives she remains. For Stéphanie, growing up with her mother meant a nomadic life, with secondary caretakers proliferating—she lists and shares her footage of many of them—and never any semblance of a traditional couple situation. (It would have been more difficult to parent within a couple, the man of the couple has his own demands, coupledom itself does, explains Argerich in one of her frank responses to her daughter’s quizzing.) The girls recollect the wackier sides of their childhood without any rancour—and a too laissez-faire attitude towards school attendance and achievement was among them.

“Some people say you can’t be a great artist and a good mother,” says Stéphanie to her mother early in the film. Argerich gives it some thought, says she doesn’t know about that. She says she thinks she finally knew what she was doing with the two later daughters, but perhaps not with the oldest, Lyda. The question remains hanging—or perhaps Argerich doesn’t even want to contemplate the dichotomy. But if the film is to be believed, she very much answered the question and broke through the dichotomy with her own life. It’s How to be both (hi, Ali Smith!).

Stéphanie’s gaze upon her mother is atypical in other ways, too. Though past seventy, the Argerich of the film is endlessly sensual and good-looking, uninhibited in her physical being and in what she lets be seen. We see her consuming food—lots of smelling, tasting, mastication–, getting a massage, smoking, there are many closeups of her hands, shots of her lying in bed. (“I love Schumann the most,” she says in one of those early morning shots.) Her feet get special attention, as at least two of the daughters remember distinctly spending a lot of time under the piano while their mother was practicing, observing her foot on the pedal, and her toes.

We learn about Argerich’s own mother too—and her father, who cared for her a lot and perhaps monopolized the parenting a little too tightly. But it’s Argerich’s mother’s personality that ends up looming. There was love there too, if the methods of giving had its wacky aspects, and again the story told by a daughter of her mother is one without recriminations. It’s all very liberating to observe. There’s respect for the otherness of the other woman—even if that woman is your mother—and a certain ecumenical solidarity across generations.

“My mother once confessed to me she had always wanted to have the capacity to heal with her hands,” says Argerich in another intriguing aside, looking at her own hands. Elsewhere, she tries to answer her daughter’s question on how her playing changed while she was pregnant. She had recorded one of her most popular discs, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, when seven months pregnant. When she first heard the proofs, she got upset because it all sounded like it was done by a “pregnant housewife”—“not suggestive at all, not the least bit demonic like you’d expect of this piece”. The doc is positively kaleidoscopic about its human subject and about its central question of mothering-while-artist, and daughtering-while-artist. There’s never a Technicolor moment of reconciliation of all needs in the film, thank god, but the Art Monster definitely meets the Good Mother in the same person, and mothers, daughters and grandmothers are seen working out a kinship of care and respect of differences, a balance of freedom and obligation. And this is extremely rarely seen on screen small or large, in feature or documentary film. What a treat.

Subscribers to Medici.tv can watch the doc here. The DVD package contains two discs, the other one being a recording of Argerich’s 2010 performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra in Warsaw. 

A montage of clips:

The English-language trailer:

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