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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
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