MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with The Red Violin came, appropriately enough, with the soundtrack, which arrived in my office before the film's screening. Composer John Corigliano's score, an alternately lush and frenetically dazzling theme and variations for solo violin (played with gusto by Joshua Bell), captivated me immediately. The violin assumes so many voices, from the original, mystical lullaby to its assorted offspring: a harsh, scraping cadenza; a rousing Gypsy melody; a reverent, Bach-like partita; a mind-numbingly agile 鴵de. The multifaceted violin in question, we find out early in the film, is the famed "Red Violin" of the fictional Cremona violinmaker Nicolo Bussotti.
The Red Violin
directed by Francois Girard
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, Colm Feore, Don McKellar
opens June 18 at Guild 45th
The combination of the score with the onscreen visuals is potent at first. In the opening scenes, the bustle of a modern-day Montreal auction grinds to a halt as the violin appears to the high-stakes bidders from behind a revolving platform. The violin's varnish is red, yet the instrument appears beleaguered. The camera pans it tenderly, intimately, like it's Gwyneth Paltrow at age 50—a formerly perfect human form that has survived many obstacles, only to be rediscovered and put in the spotlight one last time. It actually seems to blush a deeper red from the attention; either that, or its obvious physical defects give it a vulnerability. The bidding begins to gain momentum, as does the music.
With the auction serving as the intermittent chapter headings throughout the history of the Red Violin, we are quickly ushered into Bussotti's 17th-century Cremona. The grizzled violinmaker (Carlo Cecchi) proclaims his project "my masterpiece," and urges one of his apprentices to "put your anger into your work." His wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), is pregnant with their first child and he intends to give the instrument to his infant, so the child will "live for music." While he works, Anna visits her nurse, whose Tarot cards reveal the future. Not Anna's, it turns out, but that of the instrument her husband seals with sorrow after she and their baby die in a difficult labor. These prophecies cement the rather contrived condition of this epic: Whoever plays the Red Violin will become, in essence, its slave—and that, we realize, can't be good.
Next up is Kaspar, a sickly orphan who sets himself apart with his musical proficiency—turns out he's been playing Red for a while now—and gets taken Vienna (at the height of its classical period) for a big audition with a wealthy patron. When the 19th century rolls around, Gypsies unearth the instrument and are stripped of their prize in Oxford, where the tempestuous and flamboyant prodigy Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) can't stop playing the damn thing, even in the height of sexual ecstasy. Following Pope's untimely demise, his Chinese servant carries it to Shanghai, where it narrowly survives the Cultural Revolution, and from there it's on to the auction block, where a rare-instrument specialist (Samuel L. Jackson) and a scientist (Don McKellar) confirm that yes, Pope's famed Red Violin is right in front of them, "the single most perfect acoustic machine I have ever seen," one says. "The perfect marriage of science and beauty," the other assents. They see green, not Red.
THE PROBLEM WITH epics, and this one in particular, is that with every change in setting we feel compelled to gauge our proximity to the film's end. I found myself wondering how far along we were as we revisited the Montreal auction, or when every new Tarot card flashed across the screen, presaging the fate of the violin's next owner. Director Francois Girard, who cowrote the script with Don McKellar (see interview, below), also (with McKellar) eked out a fascinating portrait of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould six years ago, Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which condensed a life story into memorable, oblique fragments. Here the two offer a more linear tale that, while visually sumptuous (the film was shot in Canada, Italy, Austria, England, and China) and audibly invigorating, feels predictable and inconsequential; we're given a few too many helpful road maps along the way. Also, since we know that the people who come into contact with the Red Violin are the worse for it, it doesn't so much matter who they are as what tragedy befalls them. The violin gets lost in the shuffle, as do actors like Samuel L. Jackson and the rosy-fleshed Greta Scacchi (as Pope's lover). These headliners are but flecks in the increasingly complicated panorama, and therefore wasted.
What does come across good and loud in The Red Violin is these violinists' ferocious, single-minded passion for music. Ultimately, though, the film falls just short of success in offering up a history not just of a single instrument but that of the violin, and along with that, all of classical music.
Read an interview with Francois Girard and Don McKellar. >>