Sunday, July 23, 2017

Vamp or Not? The Red Violin

We have certainly come across vampire objects before, be it the catalytic Cronos device or a Vampire Motorcycle. We have seen a vampire musical instrument before in the form of the Vampire Guitar (incidentally, at time of writing, I am still waiting for the film Vampire Guitar to become available, a great, funny movie).

I hadn’t heard of this François Girard directed 1998 film until it was covered by Simon Bacon in his volume Becoming Vampire but, having read that, I knew I had to track the film down. By the fact that this is a ‘Vamp or Not?’ you can tell the reading of it isn’t simple and, fair warning, there will have to be a quite heavy spoiler aspect to this.

Tarot reading
In many respects the film plays like a portmanteau film with vignettes from the violin’s past surrounded by multiple views of the same auction. It begins in Cremona and the workshop of master violin maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) and returns to this scene through the film also. He is a hard taskmaster to his apprentices, demanding perfection, and his wife Anna (Irene Grazioli) is heavily pregnant. He is creating his masterpiece violin for his unborn son. Anna asks whether their housekeeper (and on the side fortune teller) Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) can tell their son’s future but she cannot until he is born – for now their humors are the same. Anna seems reluctant to have her own fortune told but, eventually, agrees to a tarot reading, the contents of which we hear through the film. In this scene she gets the moon card and also, later, notes that the pregnancy is due on a full moon and tells Nicolo that she has a relationship with the moon. It is perhaps, however, reading too much in to note the relationship between vampires and the moon in early stories.

The varnished violin dries
I will remain with the Bussotti story as Anna sits in the garden and suddenly feels pain. The doctor sends a boy to fetch Bussotti. By the time he reaches home Anna has died and the boy is stillborn. We then see him paint the violin with a red varnish. It is towards the end of the film that we see him taking Anna’s corpse to the workshop, cutting a wrist to take her blood and using it to mix the varnish. Now, as IMDb point out (in their goof section), this would not actually work in real life… that is, unless we accept some supernatural element. The tarot reading brings us a supernatural aspect and as we hear the prediction it becomes clear that the reading is accurate but about the violin and so we must assume that somehow Anna’s spirit (and humors) have become one with the violin.

On display
The film tracks the history of the violin, firstly it is sold to a monastery and orphanage, where the orphans are taught to play the instrument. Now, I want at this point to quote Simon Bacon: “This ‘other’ is an object that drains the life force out of all who play it, just as the blood in its varnish symbolises the life that was drawn out of the maker’s wife. The violin plays with such a distinctive and melodious tone that all musicians who hear it want to possess it, but each new owner inevitably begins to wane. If they do not pass on the violin before it is too late, then they eventually die.” (pg 73)

Christoph Koncz as Kaspar
That certainly is one interpretation but is it accurate? When a boy at the orphanage is given a violin it is his until he leaves. We see a succession of boys with the violin and one could interpret the rapid turnover displayed as them all meeting an untimely end, but we have no actual evidence of that – and the scene does also represent the passing of 100 years. However, the tarot reading connected to this section is the hanged man and Anna is told that she is a danger to others. We follow a boy who gets the violin called Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz).

At that time the orphanage receives patronage from Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) and they ask him to attend early to hear Kaspar play. He is astounded and takes the boy and violin to Vienna, though he is warned that the boy has a weak heart. The boy sleeps with the violin and on the one occasion they take it from him at night his heart momentarily stops. This indicates an obsession with the violin (as often shown between vampires and their victims) the penalty suggesting that it is more than a childish whim. The vignette follows his training for an audition, at which he keels over dead. The body is taken back to the monastery and Georges is informed that the violin has been buried with Kaspar.

Jason Flemyng as Pope
What is interesting here is that the next tarot card interpretation mentions Anna/the violin having a Lazarus Soul (Lazarus, of course, famous for returning from the dead). The grave is robbed by gypsies and the violin stolen and again we see a procession of different gypsies playing the violin, which could indicate mortality or just the passage of time until it ends up in the possession of the insanely talented violinist Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen & Viy). He meets his end by his own hand, however, and there is no indication that he was being drained of his life (more he was separated from his muse and sank into depression, until she returned to find him with another). What is interesting is that Pope composes by playing the violin whilst in coitus. The violin then moves on to China and its owner, Xiang (Sylvia Chang), (who has had it from being a little girl and seems to have suffered no ill effects) gives it to the safekeeping of a music teacher (Zifeng Liu) during the Cultural Revolution. He lives to a grand old age, it appears, but then neither really had opportunity to play the instrument.

Samuel L. Jackson as Morritz
The final story surrounds the auction and violin expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson, Def by Temptation), who appears to want the violin for himself – he seems entranced when he hears it play, but ultimately wants it for his daughter. I should mention that a resonance test on the violin does seem to travel back in time to Anna and cause the miscarriage that takes her life. The film itself is glorious, a fantastic journey linked by the Red Violin. It is beautifully photographed and, in turns, poignant and funny, as well as being very well acted at all points. But is it Vamp? Well that all depends on whether you believe that it is a harbinger of disaster and that it drains the life from its owners.

Taking Anna's blood
I can see where that interpretation comes from, separation was almost deadly for kaspar and we do have the warning the Anna will bring danger to others. It is clear that her essence is one with the violin, thus the tarot reading following the violin as though it is her and the inference that it is through the violin itself, in the future, that she dies. The instrument's connection with her was born out of blood, of course. People can become obsessed with the instrument – certainly Kaspar does, as does Charles – and it, in its own strange way, develops a sexual aspect. The violin goes through a death and rebirth (being buried and exhumed) and Anna’s soul is described in terms of Lazarus, indicating life out of death. I honestly think that there is enough there to sway me into thinking the Red Violin is a vampiric object, though it is not blatant.

The imdb page is here.

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