The Red Violin (1998)

I wrote this review last year for a music-themed issue of Historical Novels Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. Many thanks to the editors for allowing me to reproduce this piece here.

The Red Violin

The Red Violin

When I heard that the editors of Historical Novels Review wanted a review of a music-themed historical film, The Red Violin immediately came to mind. I had watched it many times, and every time seen something new in it. I remembered, of course, John Corigliano’s haunting, Academy-Award winning score. But there was more to it that the music. It was the story that drew me back to that film.

Not the story of any one character, but that of the many characters who gravitate, across centuries and continents, around an extraordinary violin, the final masterpiece of legendary – and fictional – luthier Nicolo Bussotti.

The film begins in late 17th century Cremona, where we see Bussotti in his shop, berating his apprentices for not striving for musical perfection. Back in the kitchen of Bussotti’s house, his very pregnant wife Anna asks the elderly servant Cesca to read her fortune in a deck of tarot cards.

There is a striking contrast here between the male world, where achievement is paramount, where Bussotti rants, yells, and in a fit of rage smashes a violin, and the peaceful, understated female universe, where mistress and servant sit quietly across the kitchen table. Anna Bussotti does not forge her own destiny. She listens helplessly, breathlessly as Cesca reads it for her.

Cesca’s tarot reading is the backbone of the plot. It is divided into various episodes, each symbolized by a different card, an arcane, as a tarot lover would say. Cremona is represented by The Moon, 18th century Vienna by The Hanged Man, 19th century England by The Devil, 20th century China, in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, by Justice, and modern-day Montreal by Death.

For, though this is a historical film, the story has a contemporary setting as well. In Montreal, we follow an auction of violins discovered in China. Or rather we keep coming back to the moment when a red violin is placed on a turntable, ready to be displayed to the eagerly awaiting bidders. Something – we do not yet understand what it is – goes wrong. A few seconds’ delay. A mere glitch in the rotating mechanism, perhaps.

This is where we meet violin expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson.) He flies in from New York, not to have much of a say or opinion about anything, but simply to sign an affidavit. He is kindly but firmly reminded of the fact that he is insignificant. Other people, more important than he, are in charge of the auction.

This Morritz character is not very likable. He does not return his wife’s calls. He is arrogant, verbally abusive with the hotel staff. Soon we realize that he is also cunning and deceitful, but that does not matter. What matters is that he is Death.

And Death in tarot, as Cesca points out to reassure the frightened Anna, is not physical death. It means the rebirth that follows destruction, the accomplishment of destiny. What Morritz engineers in Montreal is both the counterpart and the fulfillment of the tarot reading in Cremona. The dénouement of the film is the merging of these two threads. Anna has become the red violin. She has now found the measure of her power, she has destroyed all of those foolish enough to believe they owned her.

In the course of the three centuries that separate the tarot reading in the Cremona kitchen from the Montreal auction, we keep following the red violin. We hear, from glittering Vienna, the distant yet ominous rumblings of the French Revolution. There Monsieur Poussin, an exiled, down-on-his-luck French violinist, is eking out a living. But not all is lost for Poussin and his patient wife: he has found a child prodigy, Kaspar Weiss, and his violin in a remote monastery lost in the Alps. There is only the small matter of an audition before an Austrian prince, and fortune will smile at last upon Kaspar and his mentor. But the prince seems far more interested in the violin than the violinist, and they cannot be separated. Then we see the violin passing from hand to hand among bands of Gypsies roaming Central Europe.

The Gypsies and the violin cross over to England, and in Oxford meet the – also fictional – virtuoso Frederick Pope. Pope is The Devil. Again in tarot nothing is to be taken literally. The Devil here is not Satan, the Prince of Darkness. This card symbolizes the vital force and destructive energy of earthly desires. Pope is not evil. He is in love, in lust rather, with the violin and beautiful novelist Victoria. That is one too many. Something very writerly happens to Victoria: one of her novel’s characters springs to life and has to flee across “the frozen steppes of Russia.” She leaves England and Pope to follow him. An ill-fated journey for all involved.

Another voyage, and the violin, now in the possession of Pope’s Chinese manservant, crosses the oceans, this time headed for Shanghai. There it gathers dust for decades in a pawnshop before being purchased as a gift for a little girl. But it always comes back to light after long periods of dormancy, and barely escapes the systematic destruction of Western artifacts during the Cultural Revolution. From there all it takes is yet another twist of fate to bring it to the Montreal auction.

These various parts, unrelated except for the violin’s presence, are exquisitely crafted short films within the film. Historical accuracy is obviously a concern here, and it goes well beyond the beautiful costumes and decors. When in Vienna the Austrian prince snidely remarks, after poor wunderkind Kaspar is introduced, that it would be the first time something worthwhile would have come from a monastery, he expresses the anti-religious prejudices widespread among the aristocracy of the time.

The only issue I take with the film’s historical research is the scene where we are asked to believe that teaching traditional Chinese music would have saved a classical violinist’s life during the Cultural Revolution. I am afraid the Red Guards had the same kind of appreciation for Chinese traditions as for Western art.

Throughout the film performances, dialog and of course music are consistently outstanding, but settings and characters vary widely. Once the violin is gone from someone’s life, this person disappears from our sight. We can only guess at what happens next.

Does Monsieur Poussin sink into poverty and disgrace after the sudden death of his protégé? What becomes of Victoria after the suicide of her lover? Is she the founder of the Pope Foundation, whose extraordinarily jittery and unpleasant representative joins in the bidding at the auction? Does the Chinese owner of the violin escape the Party’s retribution after the discovery of her cache of Western music in 1960s Shanghai? Is she sent to some political reeducation camp, or does she meet a more gruesome fate? These questions remain unanswered. All we know is that her son Ming, then a child, now grey-haired and obviously very wealthy, also attends the auction.

Taken individually, these short films, engrossing as they are, signify nothing. Together, they serve as a reminder of the passage of time, the power of music, the tenuous quality of human existence and even
history. The disjointed narrative leaves us with brief, poignant images, snapshots of grief: the profile of Brother Kristof during the funeral of his former pupil Kaspar, the gaping holes of the violated tombs in the monastery’s graveyard, Ming’s frozen face when he realizes that he has betrayed his mother’s most precious and dangerous secret.

Even when Cesca assures Anna that she has at last reached her home, the end of her long journey, I cannot help being skeptical. I believe, or want to believe that there is more to this amazing story.

I had lost my copy of The Red Violin in the course of my own wanderings. I purchased a new one to write this review and watched the film yet another time. And another, and then still another. I too have fallen under the spell of that little red violin.

THE RED VIOLIN

Directed by François Girard; written, partly in English with some subtitling, by Don McKellar and François Girard; director of photography, Alain Dostie; edited by Gaëtan Huot; music by John Corigliano, with the London Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and solo violin performed by Joshua Bell; production designer, François Seguin; produced by Niv Fichman; released by Lions Gate Films. U.S. Rating: R.

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Now this blog allows me to do something that was impossible in a magazine article: post the trailer (beware, though, it does not begin to do the film justice)

and an excerpt from the score.

For various excerpts of the film, which cannot be embedded, I refer you to YouTube.

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