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Film / The Red Violin

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The Red Violin is a Historical Fiction/Speculative Fiction film following the story of an elusive, expertly crafted red violin with a Dark Secret.

The film starts with a luthier in Italy, a fastidious master who lovingly crafts a perfect instrument for his unborn son... and then marks it indelibly with an act of mad grief. Following the pattern laid down by five Tarot cards, the violin's journey takes it through Europe, Asia, and finally the New World. For four centuries it passes from owner to owner, haunting each with beautiful music and constant misfortune, and leaves a trail of triumph, obsession, hope, and misery in its wake.

Meanwhile, in the Future… an auction house in Montreal prepares to open bidding on the violin, now recognized as a priceless treasure. Over the course of the film, we gradually come to learn the connections that lead many of the attendees to seek the violin, and how many lives the instrument has affected for good or ill.


The Red Violin was produced by companies from Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom, and released by Lionsgate in 1998. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Score (composed by John Corigliano), and received/was nominated for many other awards for filmmaking and music, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.

This film contain examples of:

  • And the Adventure Continues: Morritz takes the Red Violin home to be played by his daughter.
  • Artifact of Attraction: The Red Violin. Those who own it tend to love it passionately, and be inspired by it like nothing else. Victoria seems to think it has an evil will of its own. Granted, this becomes increasingly Justified as the years go on, and the violin becomes recognizably more and more valuable by its age. In the present day, the violin is recognized as the last creation of the Renaissance master Busotti, and as a relic of the Romantic musician Frederick Pope — practically priceless.
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  • Auction: The setup for the modern-day portion of the story, held in Montreal and populated mostly by the very rich.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: All the auction candidates who want to buy the violin for sentimental or respectful reasons are outbid, and it ends up going to the pompous Mr. Ruselsky, who only wants it to boast about. Or... does it?
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • Chou Yan is made to burn a violin. In reality, the Red Violin is safe at Xiang's house.
    • Just after Morritz swaps out the violin, he loses the tag and tries to hurry out. Leroux sees the replica is missing the tag and wants security called immediately. There is a man chasing Morritz out to the street, presumably to detain him. It's all part of a Red Herring in which the man was actually the clerk holding Morritz's jacket and the tag is found in the inventory room and chalked up to a mistake by the inventory clerk.
  • Book Ends:
    • The first music we hear in the film, "Anna's Theme," is a woman humming a lullaby, which blends into the sound of a perfectly matched violin. Listen until the end of the credits, and the violin's music fades away, to be replaced once more by Anna's sad voice.
    • The film both opens and closes in Cremona, Italy, in the seventeenth century. Going further, the second and second-to-last scenes are played in Montreal, in the present day.
  • Break the Haughty: Busotti may have been a Jerkass, but he is completely broken after the death of his wife and son. The Red Violin thus becomes the last violin he would ever make.
  • The Cameo: Joshua Bell, who plays most of the music in the soundtrack, is seen amongst the Orchestra in Oxford as Frederick Pope prepares to play his music. Joshua Bell actually does play the piece that Frederick Pope is playing, in that special effects have Jason Flemyng's head in place of Joshua Bell's.
  • Cannot Keep a Secret: Ming is sworn to secrecy about the violin by his mother but within hours, if not minutes, of that his father figures out something's off and gets him to tell about it.
  • The Casanova: Frederick Pope.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • There is a reason why the display of the Red Violin was delayed by a few seconds. And it isn't the real one either.
    • To verify the violin's authenticity, Mme. Leroux (in Montreal) orders a replica of the violin that was made when it came into Frederick Pope's hand (Pope being the violin's most famous owner), in order to compare them. They're almost indistinguishable. Morritz later purchases the replica and uses it to swap out the real violin, leaving the replica in its place.
    • Morritz's jacket is used as part of a Bait-and-Switch.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • In the opening scenes, as Morritz enters the auction room, he passes by a man desperately trying to enter the auction itself. That man is Nicholas Ollsberg, the representative from the Pope Foundation as revealed by the scenes in Oxford.
    • In a blink-and-you'll miss it moment, the first scene in which the violin is revealed at the auction has a woman behind the auction turntable panicking. Come the fifth act, we know it is Mme. Leroux, and why she is panicking.
    • The Romani girl squatting on Pope's property with the violin soon becomes an inspiration after Victoria departs.
    • The Chinese servant who delivers Frederick Pope's mail (both his own letters to Victoria and hers to him) turns out to be the one who receives the violin and sells it to the secondhand dealer in Shanghai. Since Pope had said Victoria could do whatever she wanted with his possessions and obviously she would want nothing to do with the violin, she must have let the servant take it.
  • Child Prodigy: Kaspar Weiss.
  • Companion Cube: The violin becomes this for a number of its owners.
    • Especially Kaspar Weiss, who has to sleep with it. When it is taken away, his heart acts up.
  • Consummate Professional: Suzanne, the woman bidding on behalf of the monks is portrayed as pleasant-natured but just viewing the bidding as a job. The monks actually discuss explaining more to her why they want the violin but feel that they wouldn't be able to impress its full significance and that it won't make a difference about how much money they have to bid anyway.
  • Culture Police: During the Red China portion of the story, most of the main characters are these.
  • Dark Secret:
    • The red violin's beautiful and distinctive varnish is made with Anna's blood.
    • Xiang keeping the Red Violin safe, even as she herself is a member of the Culture Police.
  • Death by Childbirth: Anna Rudolfi, the wife of the violin maker, after her fortune is told.
  • Dirty Communists: The Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution certainly are, what with their policy of destroying anything even remotely Capitalist or Western, like rabid dogs no less.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: "Pope's Concert." In case the music itself wasn't zesty enough, Pope's performance is accented by little grunts, moans, sighs... and the audience members all begin to look uncomfortable... or, in the case of one female attendee, pleasantly uncomfortable...
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Frederick Pope, after Victoria leaves him and shoots at his violin.
    • Played with for Busotti, as the death of his wife and son leads him to close his violin business for good, but not before creating one last piece.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Played straight and averted. While Morritz is swapping out the real Red Violin for the replica, he drops the auction tag and doesn't notice it. When Leroux is about to call security after noticing the tag is missing, Evan finds the dropped tag in the inventory room.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In the very first scene Busotti shows that he would rather destroy a violin of his workshop than produce an instrument that's only meant to be a collector's piece, never played or loved. It turns out that Morritz is of the same mind.
    • When Ming sees the violin presented at the actual auction, he says "That's not the one I remember." (as he had previously viewed the actual violin in the gallery.) His wife assures him that he's mistaken. Despite those assurances, Ming decides to (rightly) pass on (what turns out to be a copy of) the Red Violin.
  • Grail in the Garbage: Happens to the red violin quite frequently. One might consider giving a violin of such quality away to a monastery to train young monks to be "throwing it out," if not, then certainly burying it in a grave will do. Frederick Pope thought so when he found Romani on his lands playing it. The violin later gathers dust in a dinky English goods shop in Shanghai for several decades.
    • Truth in Television for the real-life "red violin" that very loosely inspired the story — it was stolen, and played by a busker who covered it with shoe polish to disguise the red stripe on the varnish.
  • Grave Robbing: A band of Romani unearth the violin after it's buried with Kaspar and take it to England.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Kaspar Weiss.
  • The Hedonist: Frederick Pope. His house is furnished with the most luxurious trappings, his musical and sexual appetites intersect in peculiar ways (to say the least), and as time goes on, he develops an addiction to opium. The trope is lampshaded by Cesca's reading of the Tarot cards where she calls him "the Devil himself."
  • Hey, Wait!: You forgot your coat, Mr. Morritz. (And after he specifically made sure the coat-checker wouldn't let him forget it.) note 
  • How We Got Here: About four-fifths of the movie could be considered a prolonged version of this.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Mr. Ruselsky, a violin expert testing out the most promising finds, plays the red violin itself, and declares that it's "nothing special." The day that the news story breaks that the violin is actually the red violin, he at once snaps that he knew it at once, Morritz lied to him, and that violin should be his!
  • Informed Ability: For all of his expertise in violins, Mr. Ruselsky is unable to determine that the Red Violin that he is holding is actually the real thing.
  • In Medias Res: The auction is shown, and then the pieces for why it is important for several participants in the room are revealed throughout the movie.
  • Karma Houdini: Let's face it, Morritz did steal the Red Violin, even if it was for a more noble purpose. It would appear that he gets away scot free (unless Customs agents get involved).
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Ollsberg is one of the last ones bidding, but ultimately gives up and wearily says to let the next highest bidder have it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma/Meaningless Villain Victory: Mr. Ruselsky ends up winning the red violin at auction, despite acting like an ass and wanting the violin for no other reason or connection other than to display on his collection. What he doesn't know is, that violin he won is a fake. And even if he figures it out, his pride will never let him admit he was so duped.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The dark fates of the violin's owners and the obsession it creates could simply be attributed to the costs of artistic excellence and human nature. Its owner's habits of playing a particular tune could be the result of trained ears being subtly guided by the resonance points the academic researcher finds. The mysterious power of the music it produces could be the result of a masterwork finding itself in the hands of gifted musicians. Nevertheless, a number of characters seem to sense something a bit... off... about the instrument.
  • MockGuffin:
    • The red violin that we first see in the film, the one up for auction that attracts all of the drama, is a high-quality fake. Morritz walked out with the original five minutes ago. See Meaningless Villain Victory.
    • Also played with: when Chou Yan is forced to destroy his violin in China, the film makes you wonder if it was the real Red Violin. Turns out it wasn't, and it has yet to make an appearance in this time period.
  • The Muse: Victoria to Frederick, as their passionate affair fuels his music, and it's implied Frederick also helps Victoria compose her novels.
  • Muse Abuse: Frequently played with throughout the movie, in different forms for different storylines.
    • Kaspar averts the trope, a polite and willing little boy who just wants to play music. M. Poussin, his mentor and patron, is certain that Kaspar's talent is worth every sous of debt that he incurs.
    • Frederick and Victoria are in a dangerously co-dependent relationship where they are each other's Muse and inspiration. This manifests in Frederick in an inability to function without Victoria, and Victoria shows extreme jealousy.
    • Xiang's love for her mother's gift is so great that she puts her own life in danger to keep it.
    • Morritz is not (primarily) an artist, but he starts pouring time, interest, and research into the Violin far beyond what an academic should do, risking estrangement from his family.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Morritz and Busotti... are not.
  • Noodle Incident: We are not told where the other instruments that Chou Yan was hoarding came from, although it is likely their former owners had similar motivations to Xiang.
  • One-Woman Wail: Anna's humming mixed in perfectly with the violin music.
  • Only in It for the Money:
    • Monsieur Poussin adopts Kaspar Weiss not for love or to improve his talent, but only to sell his talent to the highest bidder (as Poussin is under significant financial duress). When Weiss meets an untimely death, he has the gall to ask the monks for the Red Violin itself, hoping to sell it.
    • Played with by Mr. Ruselsky. He has no interest in playing the violin as it is meant to be played, but only as part of his collection (and that said collection must be valued in the millions). You actually see a part of his collection when he finds out that Morritz lied to him.
  • Pet the Dog: Frederick Pope may be an arrogant jerk to his conductor and the rest of his orchestra, but he lets the Romani camp stay on his land as long as they like, and even gives them free tickets to his performances, all in exchange for one violin of theirs. As it turns out, he eventually develops ulterior motives for the Romani girl as well.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The Red Violin. From when Cesca begins to read Anna's cards, the path she lays out strongly resembles the violin's life. But it's unclear whether the future she reads is for Anna or her unborn son — and then, if the violin should be seen as carrying Anna's spirit or his.
  • The Power of Blood: Of the Blood Is Symbolic variety. Busotti finishes the violin after his wife's death by making a varnish of her blood and painting it on with her hair. The violin carries on Anna's spirit (or, alternately, her child's). Ever after, the violin's owners constantly play a variant on Anna's Theme.
  • The Power of Love/The Power of Hate - one mystical-variety explanation for the violin's two edged properties is that its creator imbued it with both.
  • Red China: The fourth portion of the story takes place during the Cultural Revolution, when Western instruments are outlawed. This segues into the final portion where after many years, the Chinese Police find Chou Yan dead from old age and his cache of instruments. Now removed from the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Government makes arrangements for a Montreal auction house to sell these items.
    • It should also be pointed out that the evolution of time from the days of the Chinese Revolution is evident in Ming himself. Given that he tries to bid upwards of a million dollars for the violin, he must have become a wealthy businessman, something that would have been frowned upon in China's past, given that his parents were Communist Party members.
  • Red Herring:
    • When the monks tell Poussin that they buried the violin with Kaspar and then leave him at the graveside, the way the scene is shot makes it appear likely to the viewer that he intends to open the coffin to steal it back. Instead the Grave Robbing that is shown immediately after this is revealed to have been carried out by a band of Roma, not Poussin.
    • We are also led to believe that Chou Yan is being forced to burn the Red Violin. Turns out that it is not.
    • Finally, the Red Violin that is displayed on auction is this, and it almost seems that a certain pompous individual (with no link to the violin itself) is about to get it.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment:
    • Two characters, who never meet, embody this dichotomy perfectly, even living during the appropriate time periods:
      • Monsieur Poussin in Vienna eagerly embraces the ideals of science, progress, and reason. The audition piece he sets for Kaspar is not emotional or passionate: it is one complicated chord played faster and faster, to prove the boy's technical skill. As a result, Poussin considers Kaspar's love for his violin to be a foolish superstition, and doesn't realize how much it means to the boy. Although, as his affection for Kaspar grows, he does understand, and lets the boy carry on sleeping with the violin.
      • Frederick Pope of Oxford, some century and a half later, is a Byronic musical genius. His performances feature music composed on the spot in a fit of sexual inspiration, and hang the rest of the orchestra for prudes. The downside is that when his muse departs, he can barely function, let alone compose and finds inspiration with a Romani girl.
    • To a lesser extent, this is also the relationship between Evan and Morritz, with Morritz's interest in Busotti's history in contrast to Evan's interest in the technical acoustics of the violin. During an acoustic test performed on the violin by Evan, Morritz orders it stopped as he fears that it may hurt the violin itself.
  • Shout-Out: During the scenes when Victoria is away and he has lost his muse and inspiration, a number of shots of Frederick Pope lying sprawled about listless and weak bring to mind the famous Jacques-Louis David painting "The Death of Marat"—one even comes very close to reproducing it, with Pope in the bathtub reading one of Victoria's letters. Marat was a political revolutionary, Pope a musical one; Marat was murdered by a woman (Charlotte Corday), while Victoria appeared about to murder Pope before shooting the violin instead. (Corday used a dagger.) In the end Pope still died, by suicide instead. There are even some similarities in features between Marat and the actor who played Pope.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Victoria indulges, after a nice "inspiration" session with Frederick.
  • Stage Mom: Monsieur Poussin acts as this to Kaspar, in the sense that he keeps pushing him to the edge of his health in order to train up to his standards and achieve the miraculous talent he foresees in him—the scene where Kaspar nearly dies from his weak heart due to having the violin taken from him, and Poussin promises him he doesn't have to play if he doesn't want to, can come across as blatant manipulation (since he makes sure to stress how the audition could be cancelled, underscoring how not playing would be disappointing so many people). But unlike most examples of the trope, he isn't doing this to live out a fantasy he can't achieve, or for his own glory (though there is a bit of that in how he wants Kaspar to learn French so "everyone will know I taught him")—it's simply for the money he can make if Kaspar gets chosen by the prince. Still, his overall harsh treatment of the boy is true to the trope.
  • Tarot Motifs: A tarot reading at the start of the movie foretells the rest of the plot of the movie. Accompanied, of course, by …
  • Tarot Troubles: Anna's reading is not filled with good omens. The Moon, the Hanged Man, the Devil, and Justice all make appearances. Subverted, with the last card — Death — which actually signifies a new beginning and change for the better. It should be noted that one death does occur during the Death card subplot, that of Chou Yan's, and only through old age, and that his death ends a period of sheltering and protection from the world.
  • Technician Versus Performer:
    • As mentioned above, M. Poussin is a bona fide Technician, and trains Kaspar this way, saying that the metronome is the master of music, while Frederick Pope is a passionate Performer who seems immune to criticism, direction, or even schedules. Notably, Busotti, the violin's maker, falls somewhere in between: he is fastidious and precise in his craftsmanship, but his love and passion for music and his wife drives him.
    • This may also extend to Evan and Morritz's relationship, with Evan as the Technician, and Morritz's interest in the violin as an instrument to be played with and not tested.
  • Time Passes Montage: Three of them.
    • The collection of Choirboys from the orphanage in Austria who play the violin for 100 years.
    • The Grave Robbing Romani, who play it for another century before ending up in Frederick Pope's possession.
    • Finally, the violin goes up on sale in a pawnshop where it is displayed for 30 years as the owner ages significantly.
  • Title Drop: All over the place, but especially in and around the auction, when the violin has achieved worldwide fame.
  • Toplessness from the Back: On the film poster and soundtrack cover, a curved woman's back (probably Anna) is shown with the 'f' holes superimposed on her.
  • Translation Convention: Averted.
  • True Craftsman: Busotti, the violin's creator, creates instruments that last for centuries, and they are meant to be played. The opening scene shows him destroying an apprentice's violin that he says is only good for display.
  • Together in Death: Kaspar is buried with the red violin; this is a trope soon undone by Grave Robbing.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Inspired by The Red Mendelssohn, a violin purchased for $1.7 million with a signature red stripe on its top side.
  • Violin Scam: Accomplished by Morritz at the end of the film, switching a high-quality copy of Pope's violin for the real article, so that he can keep his once-in-a-lifetime relic, and ensure it's passed to someone who will truly treasure it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After she takes the violin to Chou Yan to keep it safe, we see Xiang's husband back at the loft, saying he will wait for her to return. It is never revealed if she came back or what happened to her if she did, but considering what Ming had been forced to confess and the attitude of her husband and the other revolutionaries, it probably wasn't good.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The story of the auction is, although shown several times from different POVs, very little of the movie compared to the long flashbacks showing How We Got Here. Or, for another interpretation — because the film's first and last shots are in Cremona, Italy, it's possible that the entire film is a Whole Episode Flash-forward.
  • Woman Scorned: Victoria grabs a gun when she hears Frederick getting his inspiration from someone else.