The Red Violin was written by François Girard and Don McKellar. Girard also directed this international co-production between Canada, the UK and Italy, which was released in theatres in 1998. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Musical Score, and the Canadian equivalent in the following Genie Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, amongst others. It also received numerous international awards and nominations like the Golden Globes (nominated for Best Foreign Language film), the Grammy Awards (nominated for Best Instrumental Composition) and the Tokyo International Film Festival (Best Artistic Contribution Award). This international recognition of The Red Violin reflects the global appeal of the film, which is the result of a co-produced feature with inherent qualities suitable for the international market. The story of The Red Violin spans centuries and many countries: thus, creating a narrative that interweaves several plot lines and addresses the universal theme of music appreciation. This is further emphasised by a composition by John Corigliano, which underscores the film and serves as a key framing device. The film was produced during the height of co-production activities between Canada and European partners. It is therefore representative of a new direction in Canadian cinema: namely, the focus on high-budget productions for international distribution in the global market.
Treaty co-productions provide the means for pooling resources in the form of finances, government subsidies, labour and talent. As a result, co-produced films tend to have higher budgets as is evidenced in the production of The Red Violin, which remains one of the most expensive Canadian films ever made. Co-productions became a focal point in the 1990s for Canadian film funding agencies in order to increase feature film production, international distribution, revenues and cultural capital. The signing of over 50 international co-production treaties between the Canadian government and countries around the world were meant to ensure that a global focus in cultural production would result in the proliferation of Canada’s audiovisual industries. Indeed, Canadian co-productions increased dramatically during the 1990s and early 2000s until changing priorities of co-production partners in Europe toppled the Canadian agenda. From a political-economy perspective, The Red Violin’s production context therefore exemplifies the increasing commercialisation of publicly funded media and the internationalisation of a country’s cultural goods. Furthermore, the film’s musical score reflects the expansion of media production ecologies into adjacent cultural industries. For The Red Violin, producers collaborated from the outset with the Sony Corporation to reap profits from ancillary revenue streams through the co-release of the soundtrack.
Co-productions tend to exhibit narrative structures that transcend time and space. In most instances this results from having to abide by official guidelines and treaty stipulations, which mandate that the involvement of talent and crew have to correspond in equal amounts to the financial participation of all co-producing parties. This also includes production, location shooting or post-production in the counties that partake in the co-production. The consequent mixing and matching has led to contrived narratives in films that garnered the label ‘Euro-puddings’. A common aspect of many co-productions therefore tends to be a lacking sense of place and cultural identity. This ‘uprootedness’ in co-produced narratives resonates in theories of globalisation, which link the disembedding of social relations from local contexts to processes of time-space distanciation (Giddens 1990). Whereas in premodern eras space was linked to an individual’s physical environment, today’s societies are transformed by their restructuring across time and space. Equally important is Mosco’s (2009) notion of spatialisation in global capitalism, which entails the process of overcoming the constraints of time and space in social life. This includes the global restructuring of media industries, integrated markets based on digital technologies, and the division of cultural labour, which reflect the transcendence of temporal and spatial relations in a global economy. Key examples of spatialisation also include co-productions, joint ventures, strategic alliances and emerging media ecologies, which integrate short-term or long-term project management across the cultural industries.
These dynamics are apparent in the production context of The Red Violin, as well as in its themes, narrative development and key framing devices. More specifically, The Red Violin has two main narratives: a tarot reading set in the past and a future auction in Montreal, which act as framing devices for four stories that unfold in a predominantly linear fashion in Italy, Austria, England and China between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Another key framing mechanism is Corigliano’s musical score, which ties all narrative strands together through serving as a transitioning device as well as setting the overall tone for the film. As The Red Violin is a journey through several cultures, Girard and McKellar kept the dialogue in the native languages of the countries the stories are set in: therefore, shifting from Italian, German, English, Chinese to French. To address official co-production guidelines, Girard also used locations across Europe, China and Canada to shoot the film.
The film begins in Cremona, Italy, in 1681, where the violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti is building a new instrument in anticipation of the birth of his first child. His wife Anna consults a tarot reader to quell her anxiety about the future. But in spite of a promising future, and the prediction of a long life, she dies during childbirth. Nicolo bereft and filled with grief mixes Anna’s blood into the varnish of the violin; thus, imbuing it with her soul. These events set the following plot lines in motion: the violin travels across Europe and finds a temporary home at a monastery near seventeenth-century Vienna, where it is played by the talented but frail orphan Kaspar Weiss. When Kaspar is faced with being separated from his beloved violin, he collapses during a rehearsal. After his death, the violin changes hands for many decades until it finds its way to Oxford, England. Here it becomes the focal point for a passionate but fated love affair between the musician Frederick Pope and a writer.
Each of the stories represents a different life cycle as played out by the characters, who are obsessed with the violin. Beginning in childhood, as embodied by Kaspar, the following events in Oxford mark the transition into young adulthood. The violin’s arrival in China completes the cycle as, metaphorically, the stage of maturity, and political consciousness, is reached. In the hands of Xiang Pei, the violin becomes embroiled in upheavals of the cultural revolution and needs to be hidden in a secret place – the attic of the music teacher Chou Yan. The violin is discovered only three decades later, upon which it is sent to Montreal by a present-day Chinese government for appraisal and to be auctioned off. Throughout the film, scenes are intercut with flashbacks of the tarot reading, which predicts the violin’s journey – and the affect of Anna’s soul on the main characters – over the course of 300 years. The final tarot card, signifying rebirth, initiates the last story, set in a Montreal auction house. This story, which is foreshadowed throughout the film in the form of flash-forwards, concludes all narrative strands in the present. Representatives tied to previous plots, such as the monks from an Austrian monastery, an agent of the Pope foundation and Pei’s son, are all present to bid on the violin. However, in a final twist the violin ends up in the hands of the appraiser Charles Morritz, who switches the real violin for a copy. He intends to give the violin to his musically gifted daughter; thus, potentially setting a new cycle in motion.
In spite of several plotlines, flashbacks and flashforwards, the narrative of The Red Violin unfolds in a logical and easy-to-follow fashion. The narrative arc is maintained through the musical score as well as through the framing devices of the tarot reading and the Montreal auction. However, due to multiple storylines and changing locations the film’s characters remain underdeveloped. And in spite of historical references, the stories appear to be uprooted rather than linked to cultural identities. This schematic referencing of time and place therefore transcends geographical boundaries and becomes reminiscent of what Appardurai (1990) has referred to in his globalisation theory as the existence of ‘multiple worlds’ which are comprised of historically situated ‘imaginations of people’ tied to economic, political and cultural spheres. Globalisation processes are thus marked by disjunctures, in which different configurations such as ‘ethnoscapes’ and the distribution of mobile individuals are no longer confined to actual geographies. In The Red Violin references to geographical destinations are therefore less relevant than the interconnection between cultures through their shared experience – in this case their encounter with the violin.
As a result, The Red Violin’s narrative appears to unfold nowhere or anywhere, since a sense of place and cultural identity is never truly established. Moreover, as Longfellow (2001) points out, the obsession the film’s characters express for the violin embodies a form of ‘commodity fetishism’ where the object is exalted to such an extent that it mediates and transforms all social relations. The final story about the Montreal auction, at which all descendants of former characters congregate, further emphasises the market as a binding and unifying force for the film’s multiple storylines. As an international co-production The Red Violin therefore exemplifies the confluence of globalisation and increasing commercialisation of cultural goods, in its production context as well as in its diegetic and non-diegetic story worlds.
The Red Violin represents a key stage in the development of Canadian cinema, which became increasingly international during the 1990s. Through the development of co-production treaties with partners around the world, Canada’s cultural agencies sought to generate revenues and increase the global profile of its cultural industries. However, this global focus came at the cost of the local arts and public media sectors, which, after a series of budgets cutbacks, were forced to adopt a more commercially driven agenda. In addition, co-production has proven to be an unreliable production technology for Canadian filmmakers, who had to face a challenging situation in the late 2000s when filmmakers in Europe shifted their attention towards pan-European collaborations and co-ventures with the USA, leading to a rapid decline of Canadian co-productions (Baltruschat 2010).
In the case of The Red Violin, co-production mandates became manifest in the film’s production context as well as in its narrative development. Within the context of Canada’s cultural globalisation in the 1990s, the film epitomises how co-production facilitates the integration of a country’s film industry in the global market. It also reveals that a growing focus on international production and distribution channels often coincides with the commercialisation of publicly funded cultural goods.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Canada, Italy and UK. Production Company: Rhombus Media, Mikado Film. Director: François Girard. Screenwriters: François Girard and Don McKellar. Producer: Niv Fichman. Cinematographer: Alain Dostie. Music: John Corigliano. Cast: Jean-Luc Bideau (Georges Poussin, Vienna), Carlo Cecchi (Nicolo Bussotti, Cremona), Sylvia Chang (Xiang Pei, Shanghai), Samuel L. Jackson (Charles Morritz, Montreal), Greta Scacchi (Victoria Byrd, Oxford).]
Arjun Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and Differences in the Global Cultural Economy’, in Mike Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture. Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, London, Sage, 1990, pp. 295–310.
Doris Baltruschat, ‘International Film and TV Co-productions: A Canadian Case Study’, in Simon Cottle (ed.), Media Organization and Production, London, Sage, 2003, pp. 181–207.
Doris Baltruschat, Global Media Ecologies: Networked Production in Film and Television, New York, London, Routledge, 2010.
Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1990.
Brenda Longfellow, ‘The Red Violin, commodity fetishism and globalization’, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 10 (2), 2001, pp. 6–20.
Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria and Richard Maxwell, Global Hollywood, London, BFI, 2001.
N. Morawetz, J. Hardy, C. Haslam and K. Randle, ‘Finance, policy and industrial dynamics – The rise of co-productions in the film industry’, Industry and Innovation, 14 (4), 2007, pp. 421–43.
Vincent Mosco, The Political Economy of Communication: Rethinking and Renewal, (2nd ed.), London, Sage, 2009.
Graham Murdock, ‘Trading Places: The Cultural Economy of Co-production’, in Sofia Blind and Gerd Hallenberger (eds), European Co-productions in Television and Film, Heidelberg, Germany, Universitätsverlag C, Winter, 1996, pp. 103–14.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.