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The Red Violin

Directed by Francois Girard

Cast: Greta Scacchi, Carlo Cecchi, Don McKellar, Jason Flemyng, Syliva Chang, Colm Feore and Samuel L Jackson.

This sumptuous offering follows the imaginary history of a unique instrument as it passes over continents and through lives over the span of three centuries. Shot in five languages, in five countries, we progress episodically from 17th century Italy to 18th century Austria to 19th century England to 20th century China, interspersed with visits to a contemporary Montreal auction room.




In 17th century Cremona master violin maker Nicolo Bussotti (Cecchi) hurries to put the finishing touches to his greatest achievement, in time for the birth of his first child. His wife Anna (Grazioli) is fearful about the impending birth and implores her housekeeper Cesca to tell her fortune. With each turn of the Tarot cards, Anna’s story, and that of the violin, unfolds. Cesca predicts a difficult birth, but a very long life for Anna. However, neither she nor the child survive. Even so, the soothsayer’s words remain true. In a tribute to his love, Bussotti finishes varnishing the Red Violin.
The violin is bought by an Austrian monastery and is passed down through generations of orphans until it comes into the hands of the gifted Kasper Weiss. The monks bring him to the attention of French music master Georges Poussin (Bideau), who agrees to nurture the boy’s talents. Of modest means, and seeking a patron to support his prodigy, Poussin has Kasper audition for the prince. But before a note is struck, the boy’s heart gives out under the pressure, and he dies.
The monks bury the violin with the boy, but grave-robbers make off with it, and it is passed down through generations of nomadic Gypsies. In an English wood in 1893, the landowner, mercurial composer and violinist Fredrick Pope (Flemyng), is immediately entranced when he overhears the instrument being played. He extracts the violin from the Gypsies as payment for the lease of his land. And so begins a symbiotic, erotic love triangle between Pope, his novelist lover Victoria Byrd (Scacchi), and the Red Violin, in which sexual passion fuels creative urges. Byrd skips off to Russia to do a spot of research, but with one of his crucial partners absent, Pope’s capacity to perform flounders. He turns to opium, provided by his Chinese manservant, to no avail. When Byrd returns, she finds him in bed with a gypsy girl, and drawing a pistol, aims at her lover, then her rival, and then shoots the Red Violin in the neck.
Pope cannot live without his human or musical muses, and commits suicide. His oriental manservant returns to his homeland, with his master’s prized possession, now severely damaged, in tow. Arriving in Shanghai, he flogs the violin to a pawnbroker, and it languishes unnoticed in his shop for years.
And so begins another sequence, wherein the valuable violin survives the worst excesses of the cultural revolution, to be discovered years later as part of an old music teacher’s hidden collection.
In the present day, the Chinese authorities send the instruments for auction in Montreal. Expert Charles Morritz (Jackson), who we’ve been cross-cutting to since the beginning, is brought in from New York to appraise the collection. While others focus on a potential Stradivarius, he concentrates on the beaten and battered Red Violin. When he sends samples of the unique red varnish for analysis, Bussotti’s secret is finally revealed: the maestro had infused his masterpiece with the blood of his dead wife.
Unable to afford the $2m plus asking price, but anxious to have the violin for himself, Morritz switches the original for a copy and flees to the airport, while various personages representing institutions associated with the Red Violin’s history strive to outbid each other to take it home.
There is a touch of the Merchant Ivorys about this portmanteau venture, the idea redolent of Anthony Asquith’s 1964 affair The Yellow Rolls Royce, but its atmospherics avoid the more obvious clichés, most of the time. The fact that the central character is an inanimate object, the violin, as opposed to a human being, and that all the characters merely revolve around it, often not for very long, make it difficult for the film to engage the viewer’s emotions, on any profound level, over its entire course. And at 130 minutes, it does risk overstaying its welcome. But if you’ve taken the trouble to embark, you’re unlikely to jump ship.
It’s like this: The Red Violin is not going to change the way you think and feel about your life. But it is a thoughtful, sophisticated piece of entertainment, made to measure for idle luxuriating. While it will not be to everyone’s taste (what is?), it is a cut above the average, and worth seeing if you’re looking for nothing more challenging than a stylish, undemanding evening out that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

First published in Film Ireland









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