The Red Violin
|The Red Violin|
|Directed by||François Girard|
|Produced by||Niv Fichman|
|Written by||Don McKellar
|Starring||Samuel L. Jackson
|Music by||John Corigliano|
|Edited by||Gaëtan Huot|
|Box office||$10 million|
The Red Violin (Original French Title: Le Violon Rouge) is a 1998 Canadian drama film directed by François Girard. It spans four centuries and five countries as it tells the story of a mysterious red-colored violin and its many owners. The film was an international co-production among companies in Canada, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
The film frames the history of the "Red Violin" around a Canadian auction in 1997, where the violin is at the centre of multiple bids by interested parties, and a tarot card reading in 1681, where a violinmaker's wife has her future read for herself (and, by extension, that of the violin).
(Language of dialogue: Italian)
Nicolò Bussotti (Cecchi) is a violinmaker whose wife, Anna Rudolfi (Grazioli), is pregnant with their first child. Anna is worried that her age may complicate her pregnancy or childbirth. Despite Nicolo's confident assurances that he will have the best people available when she goes into labor, Anna asks her servant Cesca (Laurenzi) to foretell her unborn child's future. Cesca cannot determine the future of someone not born, but she does offer to read Anna's future using tarot cards. Anna chooses five cards, with the first (The Moon) signifying that Anna will live a long life.
In the meantime, Nicolò has fashioned a new violin that he believes will be his masterpiece, with the hope that their child will become a musician. He is about to varnish it when he is summoned to the bedside of his wife, only to find that both she and the child have died. Distraught, Nicolò returns to his shop and begins to varnish the violin (it is later revealed that this violin is the last one Nicolò made). The violin then makes its way to an orphanage in Austria. Each orphan there is given a violin which will be theirs for his/her entire duration at the orphanage, and thus the Red Violin passes through a number of children over the next 100 years.
(Language of dialogue: German and French)
Cesca turns over the second card, The Hanged Man, which means disease and suffering for those around Anna.
At the orphanage, the violin comes into the possession of Kaspar Weiss (Koncz), a young but brilliant violin prodigy. A violin instructor, Poussin (Bideau), is called to assess the boy's talents and is asked by the monks at the orphanage to adopt the boy to further his development. Poussin agrees and brings Weiss and the violin to Vienna, in spite of his wife's concerns that they cannot afford to raise him. Poussin, however, is convinced that Weiss's talents could bring prosperity to Poussin's household. When he learns that a Prince Mannsfeld (Denberg) is visiting Vienna and is looking for a prodigy to accompany him back to Prussia, promising fame for Weiss and a generous reward from the Prussian monarchy, Poussin puts Weiss through a strict practice regimen. Using his "Poussin Meter" (a primitive metronome), Poussin has Weiss practice his piece, steadily raising the tempo each day.
However, Weiss has a heart defect, which the strict practice regimens are taking a toll on, and a strong attachment to the violin, to the point that he sleeps with it. When Poussin tells the boy not to sleep with his violin, his heart starts to have problems and a doctor is summoned, with Weiss's heart even stopping for a full minute. On the day of the recital, Mannsfeld shows an interest in the violin instead of Weiss, even offering to purchase it, though he allows Weiss to play to assess his talents. Just as he is to start playing his piece, Weiss's heart gives out from the stress and he collapses, dead.
Weiss is buried at the orphanage he grew up in. When Poussin inquires about the violin, interested in its potential worth, the monks explain that they buried it with Weiss so he "could play it in heaven". The violin is later stolen by grave robbers travelling in a gypsy procession, where it is handed down and played by several generations of gypsies, spanning another century before being taken to England.
Oxford, late 1890s
(Language of dialogue: English and Romani)
Cesca's third card is The Devil and she explains that Anna will meet a handsome and intelligent man that will seduce her "with his talent and worse".
Frederick Pope (Flemyng) comes across the gypsy procession setting up camp on his estate, as a gypsy woman plays the violin. The gypsies rush to leave after Frederick informs them that they are trespassing, but he offers his hospitality in exchange for the violin. Frederick finds great praise in his public concerts with the violin as well as his compositions, with his lover Victoria Byrd (Scacchi) serving as his carnal muse. Victoria, a writer, obtains inspirations for her work through travel and announces Frederick that she needs to travel to Russia to complete a novel she is working on.
After Victoria leaves, the two lovers write letters to each other. But, while Victoria finds much scope for creativity, Frederick finds he has lost his inspiration to compose and degenerates, becoming bedridden, smoking opium, cancelling concerts, and no longer writing to Victoria. When Victoria does not receive his letters for a full week, she resolves to return immediately. But when Victoria arrives at Frederick's residence, she hears him again playing passionately. Gun in hand, Victoria bursts into Frederick's room to find him in the arms of a new muse, the violinist gypsy woman. In a moment of rage, Victoria shoots the violin, grazing its neck and detaching its strings and tailpiece, before storming out.
Frederick's final letter to Victoria states that he will be committing suicide and that he is leaving his entire estate to her. The violin, however, ends up in the hands of Frederick's Chinese servant, who returns to Shanghai and sells it to an antiques dealer (who removes a jewel set in the scroll work, though he repairs the damaged violin). The instrument remains on display in the shop for over three decades, before being sold to a young woman with her daughter during the 1930s.
Shanghai, late 1960s
(Language of dialogue: Mandarin)
Cesca predicts the fourth card, Justice, means tough times ahead, featuring a trial and persecution, where Anna shall be guilty.
In the chaos of China's Cultural Revolution, any ideas or items deemed "bourgeois" (especially from the "decadent" capitalist West) are denounced and should be destroyed. One target for public denunciation and self-criticism is a music teacher named Zhou Yuan (Liu), who is berated for his fondness for Western classical music. A political officer, Xiang Pei (Chang), attempts to defend Zhou by suggesting he teach traditional Chinese music instead, since he also plays the huqin. Zhou is allowed to go free, though he is forced to throw his violin into a bonfire containing other "unacceptable" cultural items.
Xiang returns to her residence and starts disposing of her hidden collection of classical records and sheet music, finally retrieving the Red Violin given as a gift from her mother. At this point, her nephew Ming walks into the room and Xiang starts explaining him about the violin, even playing a piece for him. She tells Ming not to tell anyone about its existence and sends him off to his father, but, realizing her secret is in clumsy hands, sets off with the violin. Several Red Guards raid Xiang's apartment after Ming inadvertently lets slip of the existence of the violin, only finding a smoldering wastebasket of Western music and photographs of Xiang's mother, an accomplished concert violinist.
Xiang arrives at Zhou's house and pleads him to take the violin to keep it safe. Believing that it is a trick to get him arrested or shot, Zhou refuses until Xiang threatens to destroy the violin in front of him. He relents and vows to keep it hidden, while Xiang leaves to face possible prosecution from Communist Party officials.
Years later, Chinese police, acting on a complaint from a neighbour, enter Zhou's home to find his dead body amid a "sanctuary" of dozens of musical instruments. Upon this discovery, the present-day Chinese government, free of the cruel rules of Mao Zedong, ships these items to Montreal for appraisal and sale at auction.
(Language of dialogue: English and French)
The final card, Death, Cesca sees not as predicting death, but, due to its upside-down positioning, as rebirth, where Anna will be pursued by many suitors and that there shall be lots of money involved.
Morritz (Jackson) arrives in Montreal as an appraiser for the violins sent by the Chinese government. Almost immediately, he notices the Red Violin and believes it may be the legendary last violin of Nicolò Bussotti. He has restorer Evan Williams (McKellar) perform some work on it, while sending samples of the varnish to a lab at the University of Montreal. At the same time, he purchases a copy of the Red Violin from a private collection in London, the closest copy to the original available (commissioned by Frederick Pope himself before his death). A wealthy concert violinist named Ruselsky (Bogajewicz) samples some of the violins, spots the Red Violin and tries it out, though Morritz tells him that it is nothing special and Ruselsky agrees.
When the results of the varnish tests arrive, Morritz is shocked to learn that the violin's varnish contains human blood. (Nicolò had carried his wife's body to his shop after her death, made a paint brush out of her hair and slit her wrist to collect blood for making the red paint.) At the same time, the auction manager, Leroux (Mercure), and lead-auctioneer (Feore) confront Morritz about the expenses he has incurred, forcing him to admit that he has confirmed that the violin in question is indeed the Red Violin. Ruselsky is furious at this discovery, saying that he knew all along that it was the Red Violin, that he had said as much when he was there and that the violin should rightfully be his.
As he prepares to fly home, Morritz stops by the auction house "Duval's", with the London copy in tow. As the auction for the previous item (a Stradivarius violin) winds down, Morritz, with Williams acting as a distraction, switches the Red Violin for the copy, accidentally dropping the auction tag in its storage area. As the copy is being sent to be bid on, Leroux notices that the tag is missing and calls security, but upon their arrival, Williams finds the tag. Morritz rushes out as bids come in from the monks of the Austrian orphanage, a representative from the Pope Foundation (dedicated to Frederick Pope's music), and an adult Ming.
Ruselsky eventually beats out the other three bidders with a $2.4 million bid, unknowingly for the copy. On his way back to the airport, Morritz calls his wife at home in New York City and asks to speak to his daughter, telling her he has a special present for her upon his return.
In 1681, Anna thanks Cesca for the reading and leaves to go to her husband as Cesca restacks the tarot cards.
- Carlo Cecchi – Nicolò Bussotti
- Irene Grazioli – Anna Rudolfi Bussotti
- Anita Laurenzi – Cesca
- Samuele Amighetti – Boy
- Christoph Koncz – Kaspar Weiss
- Jean-Luc Bideau – Georges Poussin
- Clotilde Mollet – Antoinette Poussin
- Arthur Denberg – Prince Mannsfeld
- Jason Flemyng – Frederick Pope
- Greta Scacchi – Victoria Byrd
- Eva Marie Bryer – Sara
- Joshua Bell – Orchestra member: First violin (cameo)
- Sylvia Chang – Xiang Pei (& Xiang Pei's mother)
- Tao Hong – Chen Gang
- Liu Zifeng – Zhou Yuan
- Han Xiaofei – Ming
- Wang Xiaoshuai – one of the four cops (cameo)
- Samuel L. Jackson – Charles Morritz
- Colm Feore – Auctioneer
- Monique Mercure – Madame Leroux
- Don McKellar – Evan Williams
- Ireneusz Bogajewicz – Ruselsky
- Julian Richings – Nicolas Olsberg
- Marvin Mill – Limousine Driver
- Russell Yuen – Older Ming
- Sandra Oh – Madame Ming
- Rémy Girard – Customs Agent
The film was inspired by one of the violins of Antonio Stradivari, the 1721 Red Mendelssohn, which features a unique red stripe on its top right side (the notion of a red violin painted with the blood of the maker's wife being an invention of the director). The Red Mendelssohn is currently owned by Elizabeth Pitcairn, heiress to the PPG fortune, whose grandfather purchased it for her 16th birthday for $1.7 million at auction at Christie's London.
A variation of the movie's signature violin solo by composer John Corigliano is played at least once in each time/location part, with the exception of Cremona, where it is hummed by Anna. Throughout the movie, the solos are played by violinist Joshua Bell.
Awards and reception
The film received an Academy Award for the Best Original Score (John Corigliano), eight Genie Awards – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, Musical Score, Sound – nine Jutra Awards – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Feore), Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Musical Score, Sound – a Golden Reel Award (for sound editing), and a Best Artistic Contribution Award from the Tokyo International Film Festival.
As of July 2016, the film holds a 74% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.2/10, based on 40 reviews. Critic Roger Ebert called the film "heedlessly ambitious", possessing "the kind of sweep and vision that we identify with elegant features from decades ago".
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- "The Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius". Violin Music School. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- Fletcher, Suzanne. "Elizabeth Pitcairn - The Red Violin". Elizabeth Pitcairn Productions. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- "The Red Violin (Le violon rouge) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
- Ebert, Roger (June 18, 1999). "The Red Violin". Chicago Sun Times.