One of the Nineties' more sweeping, elegant epics that often seems to be lost in the shuffle, director Francois Girard's The Red Violin (or Le Violon Rouge, if you prefer) is a full-blooded motion picture experience, a romantic ode to the power of art that grips you from the opening moments and does not let go. It's one of the decade's unsung classics.
Co-written by Girard and Don McKellar (who has a brief role in the Canadian portion of the film), The Red Violin spans centuries in the life of the titular instrument, an impeccably crafted Niccolo Bussotti violin that's called "the most perfect acoustic instrument" ever seen during the course of the film's generous run time.
The framing device -- a modern-day auction house in Montreal and veteran appraiser Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) exploring the violin's history -- allows the film to move fluidly through time, beginning with its assembly in 17th century Italy by Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi). Without treading into spoiler territory, Bussotti's life becomes tragically intermingled with his craft and soon, the violin finds its way into the hands of sickly 18th century prodigy Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz), tutored by egotistical maestro Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) in Vienna.
Years elapse and vain, sexually voracious English violinist Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) acquires the instrument; he makes brilliant music with the violin, but nearly loses it in a lovers' quarrel. Before returning, for good, to modern day Montreal, The Red Violin stops off in Shanghai during China's cultural revoltion and observes Xiang Pei (played by Rei Yang as a child and Sylvia Chang as an adult) struggling to save the aging violin from oppressive government forces.
There's an inescapable air of mysticism about these interlocking stories, an air encouraged by an early tarot card reading delivered during the initial Italian sequence. Like the Montreal auction framing device, Girard returns to the tarot reading throughout the narrative; it's an effective technique and one that helps smooth over some of the more abrupt shifts in time. The cast is uniformly excellent, aided by vivid locations and some gorgeous photography (courtesy director of photography Alain Dostie) lifts The Red Violin into the realm of modern classic, a rich and handsomely mounted examination of the enduring beauty and power of great art.
The Red Violin, along with Diva, are the first two films being offered under Lionsgate's new imprint, Meridian Collection. According to the company, the new venture is meant to offer art-house classics and contemporary films from Lionsgate's catalog in definitive editions, with re-mastered visual elements and worthwhile supplements, many often newly created for these releases. Or, as the breathless ad copy puts it: "The Meridian Collection presents significant works of world cinema in elite quality editions of the highest technical standards that celebrate their creative impact." So there. The Red Violin has been offered on DVD twice previously, once in 2000 and again in 2003; this latest edition is by far the most thorough offered in region one.
The previous region one (American) releases of The Red Violin were 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers and this "Meridian Collection" edition includes a "digitally re-mastered" 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's been a few years since I've seen the original disc, but to my eye, this latest version looks very crisp -- although a bit of fleeting softness plagues a few sequences -- and well-saturated, doing lush justice to Alain Dostie's sumptuous cinematography.
The only black mark on this otherwise impressive package? The DTS 5.1 track included on the previous American disc is absent here, leaving only the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. While the warm, detailed DTS track is an unfortunate loss, the Dolby Digital track still gets the job done, rendering John Corigliano's achingly beautiful (and Oscar-winning) score in sharp detail, with no distortion. The United Nations' worth of dialogue -- Italian, English, Chinese and German -- is rendered accurately, with an optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track as well as English and Spanish subtitles included.
Girard and co-writer/actor McKellar contribute a commentary track; not having the Canadian DVD edition handy, I can't speak to whether this is the same track, but I would imagine that's the case since neither participant alludes to any recent events. It's a pretty engaging track, balanced between McKellar's self-deprecating analysis and Girard's matter-of-fact assessment of the finished product. The 17 minute, 53 second featurette "The Auction Block" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) explores the film's inspiration and the world of rare instruments, via auction house Christie's. Composer Corigliano expands upon his immaculate score in the 16 minute featurette "The Oscar-Winning Chaconne" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) and the film's theatrical trailer (presented, inexplicably, in non-anamorphic widescreen) rounds out the disc.
One of the Nineties' more sweeping, elegant epics that often seems to be lost in the shuffle, director Francois Girard's The Red Violin (or Le Violon Rouge, if you prefer) is a full-blooded motion picture experience, a romantic ode to the power of art that grips you from the opening moments and does not let go. The cast is uniformly excellent, aided by vivid locations and some gorgeous photography (courtesy director of photography Alain Dostie) lifts the film into the realm of modern classic, a rich and handsomely mounted examination of the enduring beauty and power of great art. Highly recommended.