It is not often that one sees a movie in which the main character is a musical instrument and in The Red Violin, an epic directed by Francois Girard and co-written by Girard and Don McKellar, this is precisely case. It is Girard’s third feature film and follows the success of another film concerning music, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, about a musical prodigy who became a world-renowned classical pianist.
The Red Violin is essentially the biography of a violin starting from its birth in late 17th century Italy in the hands of master violinmaker Nicolo Bussotti until, more than three centuries and many hands later, it arrives at an auction house in Montreal. Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) crafts the perfect violin, his masterpiece, during his wife Anna’s (Irene Grazioli) pregnancy for his unborn son. Concerned about her future, Anna consults her housekeeper Cesca, who reveals Anna’s future by means of tarot cards. The fortune telling process occurs over the entire length of the movie acting as one of two main narrative threads which bind the movie together. As Girard has put it, the film has “two narrators, one who looks into the future, the other into the past.” The first is Cesca and the second Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), a New York based violin expert who is the last person we see fall under the perilous spell of this seductive instrument. From its inception the violin is associated with tragedy and becomes a focal point for intemperate human passions, often wreaking havoc in the lives of its various owners.
One of the overarching themes of the film is the universality of the tenebrous and often dangerous reserve of emotion which the violin taps. In late 18th century Austria we see Kasper Weiss (Christoph Koncz), a six-year-old child prodigy, become so attached to the instrument that he sleeps with it at night. In late 19th century England we see a stereotypically “romantic” virtuoso playing it with nimble fervor while making love. In the tumultuous midst of 1965 cultural revolution in China we see Communist party official Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang) endanger her position in order to free herself from the thrall of a degenerate Western instrument. In an auction house in present day Montreal we see various people bidding extravagant sums of money for it; finally we see Morritz – who has searched all his life for this most perfect instrument – risk his career in order to serve Fate, the ultimate source of the film’s narrative thrust.
The Red Violin is a luscious feast of a film, not simply because it takes us through three centuries, five countries and four foreign languages but because its teeming images dance harmoniously with the appropriately multi-flavored musical score by contemporary composer John Corigliano and scintillating solos by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.
The success of this pas de deux is also attributable, no doubt, to the expert cinematography of Alaine Dostie. Perhaps the sequence in which the symbiosis of image and music is most complete involves the violin being played incessantly while passing through the hands of a series of gypsies – women and men, adults and children – who seamlessly fade into one another. The sequence is given further elegance by the way that each gypsy contributes his or her own improvisation and yet all are unified by a common motif. In many ways this sequence can be viewed as a synecdoche for the whole film in that the violin is permanent while the players are ephemeral; and yet they are all linked together by a passion that the violin simultaneously provokes and allows to be voiced. The violin transcends the individual but becomes universal by means of the individual.
The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, with Samuel L. Jackson handling the role of Charles Morritz, the violin expert, with subtlety and surprisingly tender vulnerability. In one particularly effective shot the camera lingers on the enraptured countenance of the Jackson character as he listens to the red violin being played. He gazes wide-eyed into the distance, momentarily paralyzed as a dark lachrymose emotion suffuses him. The still yet tumultuous expression on his face gives us a glimpse into the ineffable source of the violin’s power.
The script for the film is superb in its eloquent reticence. Perhaps the strength of the script is most evident in the brevity of its moments of blatant articulation, in the way they yield to the violin’s preternatural charisma. There is only one scene, for instance, in which the mysterious power of the violin is explicitly (i.e. verbally) questioned and this prudently so. It occurs at the moment when Mr. Morritz tries to reconcile himself with the fact that he has found what he has been looking for all his life. He also confronts the problem of what to do in the face of perfection, a theme which remains latent throughout the film. In these scenes certain integral questions surface briefly then disappear below the surface as they should.
Showing at Images through Thursday, 10/7