The Red Violin ~ Le Violon Rouge

06/03/2011 15:18

Review of The Red Violin (1998), dir. François Girard (may contain spoilers)

It inspires passion, ardor, virtuosity. It’s the perfect marriage between science and beauty. A masterpiece of the golden age, the single most perfect acoustic machine. The Red Violin.

A 1998 Oscar-winning Canadian drama, directed by François Girard, the movie captures a journey of the most exquisite violin over the span of 300 years travelling across the world, making its way from the poor to the rich, being buried, shot, nearly burned and ultimately scarred by the touch of time. The Red Violin is made by a 17th-century Italian fiddle maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) for his unborn son for whom he envisions great passion for la musica. Nicolo’s wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli) is troubled by her pregnancy and seeks advice from her maidservant and local fortune teller Cesca. She reads from a deck of tarot cards making several prophesies which the audience later discovers regard the violin’s, not Anna’s destiny. Cesca’s prophesies provide a framework for flash-forwards each of which reveals a new episode of the violin’s life. Another agglutinating element between the episodes is the auction of the Red Violin at the Duval’s Hall in 1997 and the various bidders who are the respective descendants of the violin’s multiple owners.

Cesca’s Hanged Man card foretells sickness, infirmity and danger to those who come under the thrall of the violin. A century later the Red Violin is found in the hands of a prodigious orphan Kaspar Weiss, brought up in the seclusion of an Austrian monastery by caring monks. Kaspar plays with the innocent heart of an angel and soon becomes a protégé of George Poussin, an expert musician despite the initial protests of his wife Antoinette. Kaspar, das Wunderkind, has grown so fond of the violin that he clutches at it in his sleep. The night when the Red Violin is taken to rest in its case, Kaspar’s heart stops beating for a minute. Der kleine Virtuose finally collapses at the prospect of losing the Red Violin altogether when Prince Mansfeld, who is enthralled by his peculiar instrument, offers to buy it.

A century later the Red Violin becomes the ultimate seductress of an English aristocrat Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), an eccentric composer drawing inspiration for his great music exclusively from intense moments of passion while making love to his mistress Victoria (Greta Scacchi). Indeed, the new composition he plays at a concert is wild, passionate, and almost orgasmic. During the absence of Victoria, who is compelled by circumstances to travel to Russia, he loses his will to play and cancels his concerts. Bedridden Frederick smokes opium and his psyche slowly deteriorates. Upon her arrival Victoria flies into a fit of rage when she hears him playing passionately for she knows he has found himself a new muse. Hysterically, she shoots at the violin, the bullet leaving a deep gush at the neck of it. Frederick’s mental state crumbles under the spell of the violin and he finally commits suicide.

In the early 20th century we find the violin in Shangai in a pawn shop where it has been brought by Frederick’s Chinese servant. It is soon bought as a gift to a little, but already talented girl who falls in love with it. Later, we see China after the communist revolution when western culture and values are seen as decadent and disapproved of, to say the least. Now the wife of a party leader, Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang) risks her life hiding the wicked instrument under a plank in her apartment floor. She entrusts the violin to a music teacher with a large collection of western violins. Some years later the authorities send the precious instrument to Montreal to be restored and appraised. Here it attracts the attention of Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), a passionate connoisseur, who, suspecting its identity, takes scrupulous care to keep its origin secret until it is absolutely clear that it is the lost original to its well-known English replica. The story climaxes in the auction hall where Nicolas Olsberg, a representative of Pope’s Foundation from Oxford, Ming, Xiang Pei’s son, monks from the orphanage in Austria and some others attempt to bid for the Red Violin.

François Girard aspired to cram five independent, loosely connected stories into one full-length picture. While some of the episodes capture the nature of the effect the violin exerts on its users perfectly, others seem rushed, lack deeper meaning and almost cry for a longer exposure. The best episodes, according to my modest judgment, are the violin’s stay with Kaspar Weiss and Frederick Pope. Kaspar’s part is shot with a touch of tenderness, fitting its child protagonist. Poussin, who takes him under his protective wings of an instructor, helps Kaspar unearth his prodigious abilities and unwittingly even encourages the boy’s more and more intimate relationship with the instrument which ultimately takes hold of his life. Also Frederick Pope’s episode is a rather compelling portrait of a musical genius. The least convincing part is the Chinese one, which is reduced to a couple of agitation slogans. One gets the impression the director is running out of time, thus, the story at this point is hurried and a little too compressed.

Apart from providing an unexpected twist at the end, Charles Morritz reveals the mystery of the violin’s rare varnish. Devastated by Anne’s death, Nicolo adorns his very last instrument with his undying passion for both—his wife and his art. Mixing her blood with the varnish, he lacquers the instrument red using a brush which he has made from a lock of Anne’s hair. Almost like a devil’s signature. Thus, a part of her will live a very long life, just like the fortune teller predicted from her first card of la luna—the moon. The revelation comes as a piece of a puzzle that is finally put to its place and the story is nearly completed.

The production did indeed a great job putting together such a huge cast of actors speaking five different languages according to the land in which the violin happened to be (The movie is a co-production between Canadian, Italian and British companies). None of the actors, however, is on the screen long enough for us to grow particularly attached to. After all, the movie is not about its protagonists, not even about the violin itself as it might seem to the first-time viewer. Rather, it shows the idea behind it. The Red Violin is THE perfect instrument that, when played by a master, produces music so beautiful it makes you weep. It is about yearning to attain the sheer beauty, not tied to people, places or times. The tempting vision of perfection that the genius of one’s mind and fingers can create, which however can easily grow into self-destructing passion.

Zuzana Starovecká