Sommelier - Film Review and Director Profile
from a leading music magazine, June 1980
film auteur – or poseur?
By Bertram Earnest
GILBERT MILCH never intended to write a rock opera. “It just kind of . . . happened. A happy accident, I guess.”
Milch sighs and takes a sip of his coffee. (“My twist on café au lait; Sanka and buttermilk. People have told me it’s revolting.” He chuckles. “I’ve heard similar comments about some of my music . . . .”)
Milch—the principal songwriter and self-appointed leader of Franco-Belgian psych-prog juggernaut Dark Lather—has many interests besides music: gardening, leather, fish. And fine wine. (Milch recently purchased a Riesling vineyard in Alsace and anticipates the first release within two years.)
But Milch’s secret passion is film. “I set up a viewing room in an unused salon at the chateau and used connections to score prints of dozens of French and American classic and modern films. When I’m not on the road, I bet I spend 20 hours a week just watching movies!”
Exhausted from two years of worldwide touring on the strength of the band’s Weak Side of the Melon, Milch decided to take a detour from songwriting, boldly undertaking to draft a movie screenplay from an original concept. An idea had been percolating ever since the sessions for Mamma Jamma in 1974, and the result, finally seeing fruition, is his soon-to-be-released directorial debut, Sommelier.
Milch had an unusual childhood, which no doubt influenced his art. Born in Germany, his mother was the daughter of a local dairy farmer and his father was a U.S. airman stationed at Landstuhl. Although Milch attended local schools, he learned about American culture and idioms from his father and not surprisingly developed a similar American Midwest accent (which strangely even colored his German, much to the dismay of his instructors, who could be unkind).
When his father abruptly left the family during Milch’s 13-birthday festivities, Milch defiantly adopted his mother’s maiden name. Thereafter, the two were inseparable, frequently attending the movie house arm-in-arm. Through their undrawn curtains, neighbors witnessed the pair staging what appeared to be elaborate musicals around an upright piano.
The quirky formation of Dark Lather in Brussels in 1968 has been well-documented. Milch joined the group in 1969, clearly under the shadow of flamboyant but unpredictable frontman Lem Brisbois; however, when Brisbois departed the group in 1970 to pursue his latest obsession (candle making), Milch took over the band. (Other members have reported the lack of a vote on the matter.)
A string of albums—somehow both critically acclaimed and reviled—and a rabid and growing international fanbase made Lather one of the biggest bands in the world. Weak Side solidified that position. However, by late 1978, Milch was experiencing burnout. “Too much road time. Almost too many groupies.”
So he returned to his long-simmering pet project: a screenplay. The subject? A happy-go-lucky East Village hairdresser experiencing her own burnout who decides to switch gears by studying to become a master wine steward.
“I wasn’t really sure where the story would take me once I started writing. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for where I ended up.”
The protagonist (anti-heroine?), whose name we never learn (we’ll call her X), works at a salon during the day and in the evening explores an enthusiastic appreciation for wine—mostly of the pink variety—leading to her impetuous decision to sign up for night school classes to become a sommelier.
The pressure builds over X’s two-year course of study, with snobbish instructors (many holding down positions at some of the city’s finest dining establishments) and increasingly difficult examinations. (Must Identification 2, involving sight, smell, taste and—weirdly—hearing was particularly challenging.)
At the same time, X is trying to end a long-term relationship with an increasing clingy and annoying boyfriend (the subject of Milch’s song, “Lover”). Finally, the woman snaps, and bad things happen.
“I started off working in the vein of Godard or Truffaut—just a slice-of-life thing. But then the story took a turn into another of my favorite genres—suspense and horror.”
It is difficult to understand how Milch’s tale morphs so abruptly from French new wave into Hitchcockian suspense, followed by almost Hammeresque horror. Part of the difficulty in following the Sommelier narrative is that the film has virtually no spoken dialogue.
“There’s a reason for that,” Milch says. “I wrote a 120-page script full of dialogue. I actually think it was pretty good. The problem came during actor auditions.”
Milch scripted in English for maximum marketability, and since most of the filming would take place in New York City, hiring American actors made the most sense.
While making the rounds, he stumbled on young actress Eva Parsons playing Sally Hayes in an off-off-Broadway lyric opera interpretation of Catcher in the Rye. He didn’t think much of the libretto or Parsons’ high alto singing voice (which wouldn’t matter, as the script did not involve singing). But he was completely blown away by Parsons’ stage presence and expressiveness. She somehow seemed to exhibit both vulnerability and assertiveness at the same time. She was his choice.
Milch had his agent contact Parsons, and the actress was on board. (She affirmatively was not a fan of Dark Lather—“Too weird,” she says—but needed a new gig.) When they met for a read through, however, Milch made a terrible discovery: although Parsons’ singing voice was in a typical range, her speaking voice was another thing altogether. She was a genuine natural baritone. And it was very off-putting. It would not work.
Yet, in person, Parsons exuded even more of the glowing charisma that caught Milch’s eye at the stage performance. He decided that she had to be his lead—he would just need to find a work around.
He contemplated hiring a voiceover actor to read Parsons’ lines, which then could be synched into the film. But even though they both would be speaking the same language, he feared subtle mismatches would make editing a nightmare. (He also was concerned about the movie turning into an unintentional comedy if the dubbing resulted in the “Godzilla” effect.)
So Milch turned to his true trade: music. Although he already had recorded a few pieces of incidental instrumental music for the film at his home studio on his rural estate outside of Namur, he would need to come up with another 90 minutes of thematic music—some of it necessarily with lyrics—to help tell and propel the story of X without dialogue. A silent movie, of sorts, with an evocative soundtrack.
Consequently, Milch returned to Belgium, holed up in his studio (with brief respites to oil his leather) and, within six and a half days (and nights), had completed the entire soundtrack for Sommelier—remarkably, solo. (His wife Astrid did make a very brief appearance in the studio.) Exhausted, but strangely energized, Milch returned to New York and began filming. (Milch had decided to double down on his new pursuit, electing to direct the picture himself.)
His dialogue problem solved, Milch just had to visually tell the story. And what a story. X, going through an uncomfortable breakup (of her own prompting) and struggling with her oenological coursework, experiences some kind of psychotic break, turning almost overnight into a homicidal maniac. Well, of sorts. She starts stalking various men who had wronged her in the past, and ultimately her demeanor switches from passive to active. To put it bluntly, she starts murdering.
Discovering unexpectedly that she is good at this new avocation, she loses track and starts employing her tactics on men with whom she has no prior connection, their slights only imagined. Ouch. Some of the scenes are particularly gruesome, as X employs the tools of her existing (scissors, etc.) and prospective (corkscrew, etc.) trades.
Of course, every good horror movie needs a resolution. Milch provides it in two unexpected ways. The second third of the film involves a cat-and-mouse game between X and a dogged NYPD detective (played by veteran television actor Matthew Ernst) who is on her tail.
X gets sloppy, and the law ultimately prevails. X is captured, tried, and sent to the state women’s penitentiary. (At this point, Milch throws in an unnecessary but fortunately-brief Cormanesque Caged Heat-ish scene.) And then things get really weird.
First, X somehow manages to get her sommelier certification while behind bars. Nothing explains how that happens. Second, X escapes from prison—well, more precisely, a crack team of commandos storms the prison and kidnaps her.
When the bag is removed from X’s head, she is face-to-face with a sinister-looking Dr. No-type character (we’ll call him Z) played by London stage legend Clive Belgrade. Again, it is difficult to be sure without dialogue, but apparently X has been grabbed by a shadowy group of mercenary killers anxious to put her particular skills to use for their clients. (It is unclear whether Z is some kind of CIA cold warrior type or purely the manager for a team of assassins-for-hire).
So X (now identified on the group’s daily chalk talk board as “The Sommelier”) goes about her business, joining her new family in a series of wet jobs. (Each of the members appears to have been selected for their unique background, skillset and tools. For example, The Lumberjack favors the chainsaw, while Madame Macramé favors a kind of craftsy ligature.) The body count multiplies with a few James Bond-type exploits thrown in.
Milch plainly chose to dump every trope he could think of into this film. This even includes extended animation sequences by renowned children’s book illustrator Geraldine Schlafly—a huge Lather fan—who wanted to try her hand at more “adult” themes and images. She succeeded with her grotesque and risqué cartoon contributions.
It would spoil the ending to give it away; suffice it to say that X never really can retire, try as she may. Her fate is sealed.
Back to the rock opera. “I ended up recording something like 50 songs for this project,” says Milch. “But I still had a few gaps.” Milch filled the holes with songs by artists like veteran folky Rob Zithërmaine and Seattle all-girl rockers The Cherrrybombs. (Zithërmaine refused to comment for this story, but his representative did confirm that he cashed Milch’s check.)
Is the movie any good? The audience will have to decide when it is released in theaters on August 1. Is the music any good? Milch—who plans a three-album packaging of the soundtrack, including a bonus fourth LP featuring music from his unproduced (because, allegedly, five companies concluded it was undanceable) ballet Tycho & the Courtesan—certainly thinks so. (Milch is working with graphic artist Strom Thurmondsen and his Pigpoksis collective in Copenhagen, long-time Lather collaborators.)
“I set out to make a movie. I did that. I think it’s pretty good. But, in all modesty, what I really accomplished is a rock opera that may be the best thing I have ever done.”
Who knows what is next for Gilbert Milch. Presumably another album by Dark Lather. But what about a Western? With laser beams?