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Stringing Together the Lives in Soulful, Moving ‘Red Violin’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grand in ambition, complex in design, Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin” dares to deal with large and enduring themes, namely the inviolable power of love and art and the abilities of both to transcend even death.

This is Girard’s first movie since the critically acclaimed “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993), and even though this is a completely different kind of film, “The Red Violin” is equally steeped in music and equally unconcerned with traditional linear narrative.

The story spans three centuries and five continents as it tracks the “life” of a violin from its creation in 17th century Italy to its fate at an auction in modern-day Montreal. Samuel L. Jackson plays a pivotal role as an expert who authenticates the instrument for the auction house and falls under its thrall.

He and Greta Scacchi, as a British novelist who crosses paths with the violin in 1893, are the members of the movie’s ensemble cast best known to American audiences. But though Jackson’s intense and morally ambiguous music expert dominates the movie’s concluding scenes, the sanguine instrument of the title must be described as the main character.

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It is the one physical entity that ties together the various pieces of this sprawling story. And while Girard and co-writer Don McKellar deftly and economically fill the various episodes with full-bodied characters, we care as much or more for the violin that seems to possess both a personality and a soul of its own.

After its maker dies the violin comes to be owned by, in succession, an Austrian monastery, an orphaned 6-year-old child prodigy, a band of nomadic Gypsies and a lascivious rock star-like British violinist before making its way to Shanghai. There, after decades languishing in a pawn shop, it is bought and given to a young girl who eventually will be caught up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Decades later, Chinese authorities send the violin to Montreal with other instruments to be auctioned. Jackson immediately recognizes it as the fabled red violin of Italian master Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi).

Movies such as this that are largely composed of discrete episodes invite viewers to judge them based on the strength of individual stories.

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But while it’s possible to view this movie like a short-story collection, putting check marks beside the selections one likes best, to do so would deny the pleasure of experiencing this beautifully crafted, intricately designed story the way it was intended, as an organic whole.

“The Red Violin” would be moving even if it had no dialogue or visuals. Music is at the heart of this movie and, just this once, to call the score conspicuous is not a slur. Girard uses composer John Corigliano’s music not only as an expressive tool and as the instrument’s melancholy “voice” but also as a unifying force. (The music is performed by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, with solo violin by Joshua Bell.) Corigliano participated in shaping the movie from the earliest stages, and it shows. Though “The Red Violin” is intensely cinematic, it nevertheless is symphonic both in scale and concept.

We realize fairly early that when Bussotti’s pregnant wife has her fortune read with Tarot cards, the seer is foretelling the future of the not-yet-completed violin. The instrument, Bussotti’s masterpiece, is to be a gift to his unborn child. The dialogue and visuals of these early scenes comprise the filmic equivalent of a symphony’s theme. The cards become a leitmotif. The movie returns to them to introduce each new section, or movement.

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The movie also is unified by recurring scenes of the present-day auction house at which the violin is about to be sold. Each time we return we see the scene from a different vantage point, through the eyes of a different participant.

This is the extraordinary achievement of this film’s complex structure: Just as all of the various stories are elaborations of the fortune read at the movie’s beginning, they all also comment on the present-day scene, explaining to us how the characters in the room are connected to the violin. The stories are Janus-faced, looking forward and backward simultaneously.

Like a classical symphony, the movie recapitulates its theme at the end. Jackson’s violin expert, autocratic, supremely confidant and every bit the perfectionist, is a bookend to the uncompromising violin maker. For Bussotti the instrument is the pinnacle of his art, the masterpiece through which he will achieve immortality, as well as the embodiment of his love for his wife and child.

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For Jackson it is a sacred object, the Holy Grail that he has spent years searching for. During one scene, he listens while a great violinist plays. Jackson sits rapt, transported by the beauty of the sound as the violinist, who will become a rival for ownership of the instrument, proves himself unworthy by failing to recognize that he is holding perfection in his hands.

Only Jackson knows for certain, and while he covets the violin just like everyone else does, only he recognizes its true value and only he wants to do with it something roughly equivalent to what its maker had in mind.

Girard showed a similar love and keen understanding of music in “Glenn Gould,” which also was co-written with McKellar. That quasi-documentary was composed of 32 segments, the exact number of pieces in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” which loomed large in Gould’s career as a pianist. But unlike the cold and elliptical “Gould,” which was as cerebral and eccentric as its renowned subject, “Red Violin” glows with passion.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: There is a fleeting sex scene and some nudity.

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‘Red Violin’

Samuel L. Jackson: Charles Morritz

Carlo Cecchi: Nicolo Bussotti

Irene Grazioli: Anna Bussotti

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Jean-Luc Bideau: George Poussin

Cristoph Koncz: Kaspar Weiss

Jason Flemyng: Frederick Pope

Greta Scacchi: Victoria

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Sylvia Chang: Xiang Pei

Don McKellar: Evan Williams

A Rhombus Media/Mikado co-production, released by Lion’s Gate Films. Director Francois Girard. Producer Niv Fichman. Co-producers Daniel Iron and Giannandrea Pecorelli. Screenplay Don McKellar and Francois Girard. Music composer John Corigliano. Philharmonia Orchestra conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Solo violinist Joshua Bell. Editor Gaetan Huot. Cinematographer Alain Dostie. Production design Francois Seguin. Costume design Renee April. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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