The Red Violin: A Feast for the Senses

The Red Violin poster

A Review by Jessica Lynn Norman


Musical instruments come to us from many different origins. They pass through many different hands, they experience many different moments, and they leave behind a lasting impression on anyone who once possessed these tools of magic. The film, The Red Violin, also known as Le Violon Rouge, is a film that was inspired by one such instrument. Antonio Stradivari, a historical violin maker, made the Red Mendelssohn in 1721. The Red Mendelssohn uniquely features a red stripe on the top right side of the instrument. Francois Girard, director of The Red Violin, made this particular instrument the focus of the film. In making the instrument the focal point, Girard’s film tells of the long, colorful history surrounding the red violin, and beautifully illustrates the effect it has on particular owners dating all the way back to Cremona, Italy in 1681, when the film’s red violin was created, to the year 1997, when the red violin was “reborn”.

One of the most intriguing elements the film features is its framework. The film’s sequence is made up of scene transitions between a French-Canadian auction night in 1997 and its different owner’s situations throughout certain periods in history. This story is weaved together by a tarot card reading done by the household servant for Anna, the wife of the violin maker, Nicolo Bussotti. Anna asks the servant, Cesca, to predict the future for her unborn child. Anna is worried that her age may complicate the birth. Cesca informs Anna that unfortunately she cannot predict the future for someone who is not yet born, but she offers to read Anna’s future by way of tarot cards. The cards that Anna draws, unknowing to Anna, do not depict her future specifically, but the future of the violin her husband is almost finished making. Anna and the child meet an untimely end shortly after the reading and a grieving Bussotti finally varnishes his last violin. The varnish he uses is mixed with Anna’s own blood. From that moment on, the instrument is supernaturally intertwined with the predictions Cesca had made based on the cards that Anna’s own hand drew. Thus, the story of The Red Violin begins.

The first card Anna draws is The Moon. Cesca confirms that this means a long life. For the violin, this rings true as it is donated after Anna’s death to a boy’s orphanage run by Monks in Austria. There, for over 100 years, it is played by the orphanages choirboys. Anna’s second card is The Hanged Man. Cesca says this is to mean sickness and that those around Anna will suffer. Kaspar Weiss, a young violin prodigy at the orphanage with a heart defect, is adopted by a violin instructor who is called to visit the orphanage and witness the boy’s talents. He takes the boy back to Vienna with him in 1793. However, due to intense practice regimens, his heart gives out during an important audition. The instructor was fond of the boy and has him buried at the orphanage. The violin, however, was buried with Kaspar.

The third card of Anna’s is The Devil, which Cesca describes as meaning that Anna will meet the devil and that he will entrap her with his talent and powers of seduction. “The Devil” comes in the form of Frederick Pope, an acclaimed violin player, who hears a band of gypsy’s on his land playing the violin; the same violin which has been taken from Kaspar’s grave and passed down through generations of gypsy’s for over a century. Frederick offers his hospitality in exchange for the violin. His compositions, inspired by his muse Victoria, help him gain fame. But when Victoria leaves to travel, Frederick becomes lost and writes to Victoria that he has stopped playing. Victoria rushes back to England only to find Frederick has found another lover as his muse, and in a fit of rage, Victoria shoots the violin, causing damage to the neck and detaching its strings. Frederick writes that he will take his life and leave everything to Victoria. Frederick’s servant, who is Chinese, takes the violin to Shanghai. He sells it to an antiques dealer, who repairs the damage and encases the violin on a shelf. The violin sits on the shelf for three decades.

Here the fourth card, Justice, comes into play. Cesca interprets this card to mean a trial and judgment will be carried out. In Shanghai, during the late 1960’s, Chinas Cultural Revolution is in full swing. A music teacher, Chou, is accused of teaching “bourgeois” music and is ordered to burn his instruments. The red violin is now in the hands of the daughter of a famed violinist who bought the violin from the antiques dealer to give to her daughter, Xiang, before the revolution. Xiang retrieves the violin from its hiding place and pleads with Chou to take it and keep it safe. He does until the day he dies. Many years later, some days after Chou’s death, Chinese police discover the man’s body as well as all of the western instruments he has hidden over the years. The Chinese government is in its present-day state at this time and they ship all of the instruments, including the violin, to Montreal for appraisal and sale.

The fifth and final card of the red violin’s destiny is Death, but Cesca notes that the card is upside down, meaning not death but “rebirth”. In Montreal during the year 1997, Morritz, and appraiser, is sent in by the Chinese government to appraise the items for auction. He immediately notices the red violin, being familiar with its history. He quickly executes a plan to purchase a copy of the red violin after concluding from lab tests that the varnish does indeed contain the blood of the maker’s late wife. The copy that is obtained is almost exact in every way. During the auction, all of the major players in the red violin’s history, from the monks in the orphanage, a man from the Frederick Pope foundation, an elderly man named Ming, who is Xiang’s nephew, and Morritz are present at the auction with a new addition; Concert violinist Ruselsky. Ruselsky also wants the original red violin for himself. He even plays it at one point, but agrees with Morritz, who insists that it is not the original. Morritz is unable to hide the fact that he had a lab confirm what was found in the varnish and Ruselsky feels that he was tricked and has rightful ownership of the violin. During the auction, Morritz switches the violins and puts the copy on the display, which Ruselsky wins with a bid of $2.4 million dollars. Morritz takes the original home to New York with him, where he intends to give it to his daughter as a present.

One of my favorite things about this film is that the item on display before the debut of the red violin is Stradivari violin; a violin from the same violin maker who created the instrument that inspired the whole film. However, the most beautiful concept about this film is that it is an international co-production film, uniting production companies in Italy, the United Kingdom, as well as Canada to achieve the films message. This kind of unity is rare to find incorporated in one film, and the idea of an instrument being the knot that ties it all together is not only possible, but surely exists behind any musical instrument in history. Music’s influence across the globe is real and powerful, as is a films influence. The Red Violin does a brilliant job detailing the effects of the influence of music on a global scale. Bussotti adding his wife’s blood to the varnish was a detail thought up by the director, which ties in perfectly to the film being weaved together by a tarot card reading done for his wife.

The Red Violin has achieved many accolades, among them the Academy Award for Best Original Score; credited to John Corigliano’s masterful compositions that add so much pure, human emotion to the film. The Red Violin is truly one of the most captivating and magical films of our time. It is sure to become an instant favorite for any music and/or film lover.

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