.. Francois Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glen Gould (1993) was a remarkable and fascinating film that explored the complexity of the great pianist through a series of short episodes. Now Girard offers up a very different film that is also made on an episodic structure and in which, once again, music is central to the themes and story. In The Red Violin, the instrument itself provides the unifying element as Girard follows its history over three centuries.
In the first of five segments, Nicolo Bussotti, a master violinmaker in seventeenth century Italy, is making his masterpiece instrument in anticipation of the birth of his son. Mother and son both die during childbirth, but the stricken Bussotti completes the instrument as an homage to his lost wife and to the unrealized life of his lost infant son.
A century later, the violin is in the possession of an Austrian order of monks who shelter orphans – and teach them to play the violin. The red violin is played by the most gifted of the orphans who is taken in hand by a French music master and groomed for an audition with the prince. In the third episode, the violin is played by Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), an aristocratic English musician in the nineteenth century, involved in a passionate affair with Victoria Byrd, a novelist (Greta Scacchi). The violin continues around the world, the next part of the story set in the Cultural Revolution in China, where the instrument is owned by a leader of the repressive regime. She, at risk for protecting the instrument, since Western music has been proscribed as decadent, knows that the violin must be saved, and she turns it over to an old music teacher for safekeeping.
In the final episode, the Chinese authorities, now in possession of the late music teacher’s collection, consign it to auction in Montreal. An expert appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson) recognizes the violin, uncovers the secrets of it origins, and steals it from under the noses of the avid bidders, all of whom relate to the earlier episodes of the story.
Each segment of the tale is told beautifully with handsome settings, lavish costuming, first rate acting, and accomplished cinematography. Arching over all, and crucial to its effectiveness, is a lush score by composer John Corigliano, a score that showcases the violin and and the variety of beautiful sounds it can make, the emotions it can convey.
It would be too easy to dismiss the film at this level as a collection of stories with the violin as a somewhat gimmicky link. Girard is a filmmaker of ideas. He doesn’t lay out his thoughts like so much merchandise in a bazaar, but forces the viewer to look at the elements of the complex tale and draw from it something more than the plot.
And so, with the entire film to consider, one sees that the violinmaker was an artist, not of the music, but of the instrument which allows the music to be made – he is the enabler, and he pours his grief for his loss into his most magnificent creation, making the violin a vessel of immortality for the wife he adored. Too, since he now has no heir carrying his genetic heritage forward, his own immortality is carried by the product of his artistry.
The prodigy in the second part is a gifted musician, an amazingly young master of technique, but, still, only a child; his music is the music of an angel, an innocent. It isn’t the pressure of performing for the rich and powerful that fells the angel, it is the jaded disdain of the prince who treats him like chattel, the reality of a harsh world, an end to innocence.
Pope is a gifted musician; his music, though, is an expression, not of intellect, but of his loins. Indeed, he scoffs at the intellect of his novelist lover, he draws her away from her writing with the demands of passion. Pope puts his passion before his art, as he makes an audience wait for him to perform while he satisfies his lust in the dressing room. Girard is perhaps suggesting that great music, great art, is a product of sexual sublimation. With Pope there’s more sex and less sublimation going on; he not only sacrifices his art by his failure to sublimate, he seals his own fate with the inconstancy that grows out of unbridled passion.
The Cultural Revolution segment suggests that even in the face of political suppression, art and its artifacts survive. The authorities denounce Western music as decadent and the old music teacher reminds them that Beethoven was a great revolutionary. They, of course, are not interested in hearing that; their interest is a political agenda, not art. But it is art that survives, and it is the Chinese authorities a generation later who, with capitalistic fervor, seek to cash in on the treasure trove, the cache of violins they have found.
The bidders at the auction represent the earlier strands – the monastery, the Pope estate, the Chinese – plus a disgruntled violin virtuoso. The appraiser, the one who knows the instrument best, was the only one who connected back to the violinmaker and his grief, to therefore sustain the immortality of the wife lost prematurely three hundred years earlier. He, therefore, is the one logically fated to carry the violin into the future.
Girard has succeeded in The Red Violin in telling a captivating story which rewards ongoing consideration. It is a sensual pleasure to hear, and to watch the film on screen; it is an intellectual pleasure to mull the complex themes afterwards. This is filmmaking of the highest order.