Film Review: The Red Violin

From my preteen years through my late twenties, I made a practice of reading tarot cards. My practice was homespun; I didn’t use official or historical card meanings, and I didn’t lay the cards down in patterns (the term used by practitioners is a “spread”) prescribed by a book or some high priestess (see it’s funny because one of the Major Arcana cards is The High Priestess! See what I did there?) Instead, I based my interpretations of the cards on what I had been taught by a relative who at one time also practiced Neopaganism, and on the illustrations present in my deck. I wrote reminders to myself on those cards. In a fit of revisionism, I painted over the card labeled Judgment to use less Christian imagery. I thought I knew what I was doing, and I cared about what I did.

It all changed for me one Halloween/Samhuine night, when I read the cards for a young woman who lived in my apartment building. She took the cards much more seriously than I was prepared for. I had always thought of the cards as providing a chance to reconsider events and situations from a different perspective, to be forced to look at elements that one had not been previously been focusing on. I used the cards to widen my interpretation of life. But this woman… the reading I gave frightened her. I did my best to calm her down – “These cards do not take away your free will!” – but she could not be consoled. The reading I had given her was, in accordance with tarot’s generalizing nature, really just a handful of platitudes and truisms. But those platitudes and truisms took away her peace of mind, in a way that the other platitudes and truisms I had to offer, could not redeem. I was troubled, and while I did a handful of other readings after that one, it was never the same experience that it had been and when I realized that atheism and the spirit of rational inquiry held an answer for me that I had been lacking, I abandoned my practice.

I bring this piece of my personal history to bear on this review because the guiding structure of The Red Violin is a tarot reading, done by a servant for the pregnant wife of a violin builder in 1683. Each card that the servant flips over (I never did a five-card spread but I suppose it’s possible) is supposed to represent a significant owner of the violin over the course of the centuries that separate it from 1997, the year in which the film was created. The Red Violin is therefore another example of a film in which several narratives are told that are connected in some way. I have previously discussed in this blog my feelings about this film phenomenon. The Red Violin does it better than most I have seen.

The presence of tarot cards in films still triggers an emotional reaction of curiosity and pride in me. Curiosity to see what meaning gets ascribed to the cards employed; pride because I almost always come to the conclusion that the meaning has been stretched, sometimes past the point of breaking, for the sake of drama or the narrative, and that if I were the reader of the cards in question, I would come to a much better and more useful conclusion. Why I still have such strong feelings when I see those cards, familiar shapes being put to unexpected ends, I really can’t say. I guess I could compare it to someone recovering from a substance abuse problem getting confronted with images of the substance and people getting high.


Do you watch with subtitles?
Do you watch with subtitles?

What a difference subtitles can make!

I never thought I would be making a point of talking about the subtitling of a film in one of these reviews, but only a few minutes into The Red Violin I knew I would be talking about what had happened. You see, The Red Violin contains dialogue in several different languages: Italian, German, French, and Chinese in addition to English. Whoever set up the subtitles for the edition I was watching only provided 2 options: English for (almost) the entire film, or Spanish for (I can only assume also almost) the entire film. There was no option to translate the Italian, German, French and Chinese, and leave the English without subtitles. While I am very glad that the subtitling would have been useful to a hearing impaired viewer, I also understood for the first time why some people would rather watch Japanese cinema with dubbing instead of subtitles. I had always preferred the subtitled experience but the presence of subtitles on the screen for the English dialogue did distract me. It was necessary though, as the shifts between languages were frequent and at times quite abrupt.

Note my use of the qualifier “almost” in the previous paragraph. There was some material in the segment of the violin’s story that was set in China that was only given the description “singing in Chinese”. This greatly irritated me. The singing accompanied a children’s performance of Maoist propaganda and I was very curious as to its actual words. I maintain that this choice on the part of whomever was in charge of subtitling, whether conscious or unconscious, serves to alienate the presumably Western viewer from the Chinese and makes them seem more exotic. Irritating.


Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?
Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?

A review I read a long time ago is relevant to this section. Someone who critiqued the Samuel L. Jackson (who also plays an important character in The Red Violin and does well with the material) vehicle The Caveman’s Valentine once pointed out that the main character is supposed to be a musical genius but his piano compositions lack any type of subtlety and refinement and mostly consist of pounding on the keys for emphasis. “Not since The Piano has supposedly wonderful piano music sounded so bad,” the reviewer crowed.

I bring this up because one of the elements that separates a film from other forms of narrative is the audio component of the experience. A book version of The Red Violin could simply describe Frederick Pope’s compositions as “brilliant”, or it could go into lengthy, loving description of Pope’s eccentric performance, but the actual sound of Pope playing the violin would be left to the imagination of the viewer. In the film version, those who are not hearing impaired expect to hear what Pope actually sounds like. To what extent can the film’s creative team create an actual violin solo that the viewer will label brilliant, instead of just referring to the solo as “brilliant” in the text and relying on the reader’s trust of the perspective of the text’s narrator? I ask this because, as a viewer, I was not sold on Pope’s performance, or even that of the young, talented Austrian orphan, Kaspar Weiss. Both of these violinists were able to play violin solos very quickly. But tempo is only one dimension of musical performance. Their solos did not move me the same way as the performance of the violin’s player in Shanghai, who clearly was not meant to be interpreted by the viewer as being the best violinist of the bunch.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.
Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.

All of the five stories told in The Red Violin hinge on the awe-inspiring power of passion. The violin’s maker goes to macabre extremes to express his grief in a way that connects it to his creation. Kaspar Weiss pushes himself to fatal fervor in an attempt to become famous. Xiang Pei risks her livelihood and possibly her life to preserve art that her people despise. Morritz breaks the law to hold onto perfection. The dangers and depths of passion are most evident in the ridiculous tale of Frederick Pope, his spurious smoking of opium which contrary to artistic depiction was not really a common practice in England in the Victorian Era (look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me) and his authoress lover Victoria, who break each others hearts in the name of their respective arts. All of these stories are about the lengths, breadths, and heights people will go to in order to express emotions: the acts that most people would consider to define us as people.

Like the art of tarot, The Red Violin feels good, but does not really hold up well under the microscope of rational scrutiny. Don’t pick this one up expecting to be challenged. Don’t pick this one up looking for rigorous explanation of thought-provoking questions. Pop yourself some popcorn and enjoy the drama. This one will tug at your heartstrings as surely as the bow sets the strings of the red violin a-humming. Is that enough for you?

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

2 thoughts on “Film Review: The Red Violin

  1. I didn’t know that there were subtitles until after I watched it. Still enjoyed it immensely. Now that I know more about it, I will have to rewatch.

  2. Oh it’s been a while since I saw this! I went back to youtube to catch some of the musical performances – and yeah, truthfully, the music itself leaves a lot to be desired (with the exception of the gypsy-Roma musicians, that part was my favorite).

    The violin playing itself was amazing (Joshua Bell could make a major scale sound amazing), but the compositions weren’t really enough to carry to film’s emotional weight. Pope’s performance in particular is technically impressive, but soulless and melodically predictable, basically a mediocre composer’s attempt to imitate Paganini. I agree that it can be a little distracting, with the film telling us “this is a spectacular musical performance,” when the performance itself wouldn’t carry weight outside of the context of the film. It kind of makes the whole suspension of disbelief thing a lot harder. A similar thing happened for me in the otherwise great film Music of the Heart – where Merle Strep plays a violin teacher, but holds her violin in a very awkward and unplayable way.

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