The Red Violin at 25: The Magic in Musical Instruments Lives On

Movies Features Samuel L. Jackson
The Red Violin at 25: The Magic in Musical Instruments Lives On

Ah, the Red Mendelssohn, one of history’s greatest musical instruments. The Stradivarius violin, crafted in 1720, is still played to this day by American classical violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn. News to you? Well, to be honest, I never would have known of the revered violin if it wasn’t for writer/director François Girard’s 1999 film The Red Violin

While I adore music, I can’t play a note of it. So I remain an unabashed admirer of those who can pluck notes from their chosen instrument and make their magic. Some of my deeper respect for those who can goes back to when I first saw The Red Violin 25 years ago. I’d never seen a film before that so effectively imbued the swelling emotions of its player into the instrument itself. In telling the stories of its maker through to its most recent owner, The Red Violin beautifully conveys how every player’s successes, failures or tragedies become imprinted within its wood, a phantom tapestry that forevermore influences the music played on it.

If you’ve never heard of the movie, though, I’m not surprised. The Red Violin belongs in that distinct category of ‘90s indies that got heavy rotation on cable lineups, or were home video rental discoveries that you picked up because Samuel L. Jackson was on the cover. (Yes, Samuel L. is in this violin movie). To this day, The Red Violin remains one of those rare films that not only still lives rent-free in my brain, but one that defined—to this musically disinclined person—the depth of story and importance that a modest instrument can possess outside of the mere sound that it makes. 

Envisioned as a sprawling period piece, Girard and co-writer Don McKellar were inspired to turn their fictional version of the Red Mendelssohn into the central character of The Red Violin. After their success with 1992’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the pair continued to refine their multi-perspective historical approach, revealing a subject through the stories told about it.

Here, they personify a “lost” violin that mysteriously reappears on the market of high-priced antiquities. Due to its distinct red varnish, appraiser Charles Morritz (Jackson) theorizes that it could be the famed last work of Italian violin-maker Nicolò Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi). As Morritz investigates the violin’s past, Girard takes us back through time in separate vignettes that reveal the travels of the violin across continents, trading owners and circumstances across two centuries.

The French-Canadian Girard evokes a very European tone with a film that uses no less than five languages to authentically portray the exotic and drama-laden journey Bussotti’s final creation has taken. He traveled to England, Austria, China, Canada and Italy to tell the stories of the violin’s subsequent owners, and cast international character actors like Greta Scacchi, Tao Hong and Colm Feore (as well as Sandra Oh and Jackson) to portray the instrument’s passionate caretakers. Yet Girard also masterfully cribs from the Miloš Forman handbook of making accessible arthouse films, keeping The Red Violin incredibly kinetic, engaging us through score and movement. By leaning on the “show, don’t tell” approach, the various narratives can be followed easily without having to read any of the subtitles. Girard thoroughly reminds us that sex, obsession, death, fear and love are universally understood.

And speaking of the score, if the violin is a character of this movie, then composer John Corigliano goes above and beyond in providing its voice. His exquisite score is led by virtuoso violin performances from Joshua Bell. Within the score, the instrument is used in every kind of way, from earthy jigs to mournful caprices that underscore the personal and intimate circumstances of its players. Often, it’s music to sob along to, as the self-contained composition for each owner is subtly imbued with the repeating motifs of “Anna’s Theme”—the last melody that Bussotti played on his ultimate creation. 

If all of that isn’t enough, Girard also creates an effective, nonlinear mystery anchored by Jackson’s Morritz as he picks away at the legends and truths of the violin’s past. There’s a ticking clock element to the impending sale as the auction house and potential buyers—some being ancestors of previous owners—convene and clamor for confirmation from Morritz about the veracity of whether this is the famed red violin. As Morritz pieces together all that this instrument has “seen” in its travels (coupled with some varnish dating), he becomes more and more invested in the emotional price this violin has exacted through its existence.

Artists hope to change perceptions, instill understanding or even create community with their work. The Red Violin didn’t make me pick up an instrument and learn how to play it, but it changed how I saw the vehicle through which musicians share their gifts. Now, at every concert I attend, I see the dents in a cello’s body and the worn-out wood of an acoustic guitar. The instrument itself is part of the tales musicians weave, and each has its own stories to tell.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, NBC Insider, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios, Avatar: The Way of Water and the upcoming The Art of Ryan Meinerding. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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