People love things. And while no two individuals are drawn to exactly the same things, as a species, we love to touch, handle, and possess objects, particularly, as noted by Karl Marx, those that we fashion by means of our own making. The things that we have, or don’t have, are part of how we express who we are; indeed, from certain perspectives, our individual identities are in fact nothing more than the product of the things we assemble to signify those identities to the world. This fascination with things is at the heart of François Girard’s and Don McKellar’s time and space spanning The Red Violin (1998), recently re-released on DVD as part of Lions Gate’s Meridian Collection.
As a film that is essentially a biography of an object, that is, the violin of the title, perhaps most of all what The Red Violin rests on is the reification of things, or the investment of objects with meanings and desires beyond their immediate uses. Girard, McKellar, and editor Gaétan Huot, show: the violin’s birth, as it stands in for creator Nicolo Busotti’s (Carlo Cecchi) stillborn child and dead wife, its gradual maturation as it passes from child prodigy (Christoph Koncz’s Kaspar Weiss) to a series of gypsy folk musicians and then to an accomplished artist (Jason Flemyng’s Frederick Pope), its “retirement” by the Cultural Revolution in China, and then, perhaps, its rebirth in the hands of appraiser Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson).
The film even flirts with the idea of the violin’s death, once when shot by Greta Scacchi’s jealousy-mad Victoria Byrd, and again when the audience is shown a violin case placed on a pyre in China (a subsequent threatened smashing is somewhat less credible, but should be noted). Repeated cuts to a tarot reading from the violin’s origin-place, Cremona, Italy in the late 1600s, further suggests that the violin is a thing with a life of its own. The fortune teller, Cesca (Anita Laurenzi), is ostensibly speaking to and about Niccolo Busotti’s wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), but the movie is edited so as to apply the reading to the violin in addition to, or maybe in place of, the pregnant woman.
This biography is not told in a linear chronology, but takes the form of what film scholar André Loiselle calls a “mosaic narrative”, that is, a story told through distinct, but interrelated pieces, arranged more side-by-side and from different directions than in a straight line. While the movie does begin at the beginning, it then jumps to an auction in the present day before returning to the violin’s moment of birth.
Each of the historical vignettes that follow, spaced at roughly 100-year intervals and moving from Italy to Austria to Great Britain to China and, finally, to Canada and Montréal (or, implicitly, finally to New York), is intercut with the tarot reading and different views of the auction, each of which is tied to the introduction of contemporary characters related to, or deeply interested in, past possessors of the violin. When the modern story is finally slotted into the larger narrative, it steps back in time from the auction before catching back up, and then moving beyond, that point in the timeline.
The mosaic nature of the film extends to its use of framing devices. The whole is framed both by the tarot reading and by the auction, while each vignette is framed by actual historical events, such as the French Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, or fictional ones, notably readings from Victoria Byrd’s novel-in-progress.
As the unifying subject of the movie, the violin is not simply a passive receptacle for human desire. It is also an active agent in its own story. The violin beckons, lures, and seduces those who come across it. It brings life to those who play it, and this is quite literal in the case of the young Kaspar Weiss. The violin’s emergent personality is marked most dramatically by Byrd’s blaming it for Pope’s infidelity, and most cleverly by shots framed through its body such that it appears to be looking at Morritz.
The liveliness of things is also crucial to the film’s success in its travels across space and time. The emplacement of each chapter in the violin’s life depends on mise-en-scène, particularly costumes and production design. The filmmakers entirely eschew the standard use of titles to inform the audience of when and where the action is taking place. Instead, viewers have to take their cues from dialogue and from the collection and arrangement of things on screen so as to locate the violin, both geographically and historically.
On the one hand, as Bill Gibron notes in his review of the new DVD on Short Ends and Leader, the handling of The Red Violin‘s historical narrative can be seen as the triumph of “sumptuousness” over “depth”. On the other hand, as Gibron also notes, as with the violin itself, the skillfulness of the film’s compositions is one of its primary appeals.
Loiselle’s analysis of the movie’s mosaic structure is made in the context of situating The Red Violin as a Canadian film. While an international co-production, the primary creators, director and co-writer Girard and co-writer and supporting actor McKellar, are Canadian. Loiselle argues in his essay on Don McKellar for North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema since 1980 (The University of Alberta Press, 2002), that The Red Violin‘s Canadian-ness is marked not only by its narrative, the mosaic being a “typically Canadian” cultural metaphor, but also by the sublimation of its Canadian roots.
Canada in the figure of Montréal is, quite literally, the film’s primary background, a location that facilitates the purchase of the violin at auction and that brings together people from around the world, but remains removed from the action proper. Here Canada is more akin to the string of gypsy fiddlers or Frederick Pope’s Chinese manservant (Stuart Ong) than it is to Weiss or Pope; the violin is conveyed by Canadians, but not truly possessed by them.
When thinking of The Red Violin as a work of Canadian cinema, it is hard not to notice that the violin ends up in the hands of an American who illicitly spirits the instrument off to the States. The central yet minor role that Canada and Canadians play in the narrative exemplifies what Loiselle refers to as the “radical moderation” of, particularly, Anglo-Canadian identity, an identity embodied by the unassuming McKellar.
Despite its arguably self-conscious rehearsal of certain tropes in Canadian identity, The Red Violin exhibits a number of qualities that make it atypical of that country’s cinema. The aforementioned “sumptousness” is one such quality, and, indeed, at a budget of $10-$15 million, the film is still cited as the most expensive in Canadian history. The creative collaboration between an Anglo-Canadian and a French-Canadian is also notable. The two cinemas are largely separate, and, in fact, until 2007’s Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Girard and McKellar’s Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993) stands as the other significant work of film to bridge the distance between the two “founding” nations.
The presence of Samuel Jackson also plays a role in differentiating the film from smaller productions. Canadian films, especially English-language Canadian films, tend not to be cast with bankable stars. Actors like Colm Feore, the auctioneer in The Red Violin, often get to star in films and TV shows made at home, while filling supporting roles in Hollywood productions. Outside of Canada, these are individuals you might see on the street and think, “hey, I know them”, but not be able to come with a name or exact placement.
However, The Red Violin seems designed to push the Canadian actors to the background despite being a “local” production. As Gibron suggests in his review, seeing Jackson “underplaying his part”—in a radically moderate Canadian way perhaps – is a thrill in itself, even if the big explosion of anger and emotion never quite comes.
The Meridian Collection DVD offers a beautiful transfer of the film, bright with rich, vibrant colors, important particularly for the historical vignettes, and an equally clear soundtrack. The extras include two short features, the theatrical trailer, and a commentary track with McKellar and Girard.
The first short, The Auction Block, provides context for the film’s story, and includes a discussion of rare instruments and of the Stradivarius that inspired the Red Violin of the film. Having been produced for the DVD, this feature addresses the movie directly rather than simply being of relevance or interest. The second feature is a discussion about the movie’s Oscar-winning score with the composer John Corigliano, who talks not only about the score itself, but its relationship to the actors, the narrative, and production design. Both features are well-produced and will be of interest to new and old fans alike.
The commentary track is good natured and engaging if somewhat ad hoc (both men claim that this is the first time they have revisited the film since its premiere). While there is some reminiscing and joking back-and-forth, the track also offers insight into important details of the production, including what kinds of research went into the script, how locations were selected, and discussion of critical and audience reactions. The track is easy to listen to in pieces as Girard and McKellar do a good job of keeping up with the shifts in scene.
The Red Violin’s mosaic is, ultimately, an open-ended one. As Morritz rides off with his prize, it’s difficult to know whether to feel heartened by his “liberation” of the violin or fearful. For most of its life, the violin has not been associated with good outcomes for those who have possessed it.
The tarot reader promises a “rebirth”, so perhaps his act has saved the instrument from its association with pain and death. As is learned in the commentary, this is the reading that Girard and McKellar prefer, but it is difficult not to feel at least somewhat ill at ease as Morritz promises the gift to his daughter (McKellar and Girard also indicate that at initial screenings, many in the audience wondered whether Morritz actually takes the violin or merely its copy; to their credit, both seem receptive to this alternate possibility even as they do not hold it themselves).
The film’s narrative mosaic also contains key gaps, such as how, exactly, it ends up in the monastery and in the hands of Kaspar Weiss. The identity of the auction “winner”, Mr. Ruselsky (Ireneusz Bogajewicz), is also not clear. Such small, missing or obscured pieces, and the openness of the violin’s trajectory, ensures that the “ultimate thing”, as Morritz puts it, continues to entrance and engage even after the film’s final shot.