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The Red Violin

Review by Jerry White
Posted 11 June 1999

  Directed by Francois Girard

Starring Samuel L. Jackson,
Don McKellar, Carlo Cecchi,Irene Grazioli,
Jean-Luc Bideau, Christoph Koncz,
Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi,
Sylvia Chang, Liu Zifeng,
Colm Feore, and Monique Mercure

Written by Francois Girard
and Don McKellar

Contemporary world cinema, is, in a very real way, living under the tyranny of the Miramaxy art film. You know what I'm talking about; be it Shakespeare In Love, The English Patient, or any of those Merchant/Ivory films that they release, Miramax has come up with a very successful formula that makes an audience feel as though they are experiencing a kind of cultured internationalism even though they don't have to do a whole more work than a typical Hollywood film would demand.

What, you may reasonably ask at this point, does any of this have to do with The Red Violin, which is not distributed by Miramax (Lion's Gate is releasing it in the United States) and indeed has only a little bit of American money in it (it's a co-production between Canada, the U.S., England and Italy)? Well, one of the more interesting aspects of The Red Violin, director Francois Girard's third feature film, is the way that it invokes the themes of the Miramaxy art film - it's filmed in five countries, it's partly a historical costume drama, it has really lovely set and costume designs, and it deals with high culture, in this case classical music - only to reject the formal demands of said art film genre in very peculiar ways. This was one of Canada's most anxiously awaited films of 1998, and to say that it disappointed audiences a little bit is to begin to explain its peculiar charm. It may make me sound like something of an elitist, but there's something satisfying in seeing a filmmaker bold enough to fall just short of what would be expected of a "quality film."

To call The Red Violin epic would be something of an understatement. It begins in 17th century Italy and moves gradually across Europe to Austria and England, across the ocean to China during the cultural revolution, and finally to Montreal, where it comes up for auction. This Montreal narrative forms the skeleton of the film, and we keep coming back to it after we see one of the other little mini-narratives unfold. Samuel L. Jackson sits at the center of the Canadian end of things, playing a brooding, obsessive restoration expert who slowly comes to realize the enormity of the instrument he's now responsible for.

Re-hashing the narrative of this film seems totally beside the point, given the incredible detail that permeates every shot. Girard has a keen visual sense, and he resists the temptation to simply shoot everything in earth tones with soft light and gentle music. The sequence in 18th century England is a good example of this; there are several moments, particularly the climactic confrontation, that are rendered with a kind of clarity that feels almost disorienting. The sequence in China also resists the impulse to exoticize that is such a common part of the Miramaxy schema; Shanghai in the 1970s, Girard shows us, was a pretty peculiar place, a chunky and difficult to navigate amalgamation of eastern traditions, western holdovers, and the brave new world of Communism. The sequence feels odd, and like the sections in Austria and England it even feels a little bit sluggish. This is not, I would argue, a problem.

Indeed, much the same could be said for Samuel Jackson's performance. Those of you expecting a variation on his philosophical gangsters, or even his Mace Windou character, will be disappointed. Instead, his performance is so understated that it's difficult to get a hold on just what kind of person his character is; the idea that he's just sullen and complex doesn't even come across all that clearly. As he works on the violin you can feel him becoming weighed down by all the history and culture the instrument has accumulated over the years, and that does indeed seems to change him. The essence of that change, though, is very difficult to enunciate. It jumps out at unexpected times, without any real logic and sometimes without any real narrative effect, only to recede again for long sections of the film. Like The Red Violin overall, Jackson's character is very uneven, very opaque, and not very emotionally engaging.

And that overall feeling, that lack, is why I've come to think very well of The Red Violin. When I first came out of the film I felt a little bit cheated, like I had been promised this piece of emotionally appealing eye candy and instead got this very strange melodrama with an overly-ambitious sweep. But the film really grew on me; what, I began to wonder, was Girard putting up there instead of that emotional payoff? What I finally concluded about The Red Violin was that it's a film that perfectly captures the sense of confusion and longing that is becoming increasingly central in our ideas of "the global." This brave new small world that we're all promised is supposed to come with cultural treasures beyond anything we've previously had access to, but what Girard shows us is that these dreams come with a price. Jackson's globe-trotting sophisticate begins to realize this, although it's clear he doesn't entirely know what to do with that realization. The image of the auction room, with latter-day representatives of each of the violin's stories, is seen by Girard not as a wonderful cultural mosaic, but a horrible, crass gathering of people who are very much less than the sum of their parts. The central tension of the film comes from Jackson's attempt to keep the violin away from them, ironically to save this instrument, which has floated through unimaginable chasms of space and time, from the clutches of the new global class.

Girard's name is probably recognizable to American audiences; he directed, and co-wrote along with Don McKellar (who also co-wrote The Red Violin) the lovely, lyrical and elliptical biopic 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Girard is part of the production company Rhombus Media, a group whose films have totally re-defined the relationship between film and music. The Red Violin must be seen in this context. Just as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is not a simple story about a great pianist's life but an avant garde meditation on Gould and his relationship to music, concepts of genius, authority, loved ones, technology, and the Canadian landscape, The Red Violin is a narratively unusual attempt to wrestle with the meaning of globalism. It's a critical film, one that sometimes makes things difficult for its viewer and refuses to provide much in the way of emotional catharsis (even the end, when the violin makes its getaway after several close calls, feels oddly flat). It may look like a Miramaxy art film, but it's something else entirely. Those who are willing to open their eyes and their minds a little wider than the Bros. Wienstien are willing to will be richly rewarded.

Be sure to read Sean Axmaker's interview.

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