(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) As someone who like cinematic form experimentation, there’s no way I wasn’t going to be interested in Le Violon Rouge, a Canadian film tacking not a single character, but a single object through centuries. Here, the story begins in the late seventeenth century, as a grieving violin-maker coats a new violin with a substance of particular meaning. From that dramatic starting point, we follow the violin through Vienna (1793), Oxford (1890s), Shanghai (1960s) and Montréal (1997) as the violin changes hands, creates passions and undergoes surprising changes in fate. As a concept, it’s quite lovely—there are a lot of novels of the sort (or close to it—see the bibliography of James A. Michener and Edward Rutherfurd) but for obvious reasons it’s a much harder form to do as a film—juggling several time periods is a nightmare in itself, not to mention the added production costs. As a result, I can’t help but compare the potential of Le violon rouge with its execution and being slightly disappointed—more time periods, stronger dramatic ironies, perhaps a longer running time in the form of a miniseries could have done the best justice to the idea. Still, what we do have with the finished film in 131 minutes isn’t negligible—the editing hopping back and forth between 1997 Montréal and earlier time period is admirable enough, but writer/director François Girard’s juggling of a large cast of character and five separate languages is an amazing feat in itself. Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Sandra Oh, French-Canadian cinema fixture Remy Girard and none other than Canadian director Don McKellar (who also co-wrote the film) are only some of the names in the ensemble cast. While Le violon rouge does have flaws, it’s also quite an interesting experiment in cinema itself and does warrant a look if that’s the kind of thing that interests you.
(In theaters, February 2011) French Canadian cinema is best-known for comedies and historical pieces rather than globe-spanning dramas, and that’s a good part of why Incendies feels so satisfying. Spanning thirty years and two continents, the film is kicked off by posthumous revelations that send Montréal-based twins to the Middle East (specifically Lebanon, although the film is careful to invent place names and never specify countries) where they eventually piece together a set of terrible family secrets. While borrowing a few tricks from the thriller playbook (Guns! Explosions! Torture!), this is a serious drama more than anything else. Bouncing in time between the contemporary odyssey of the twins and the events of their mother’s life, Incendies has scope, dramatic depth and feels like a world-class production. The actors are exceptional (Lubna Azabal is particularly good, but it’s also hilarious to see Remy Girard show up in another Oscar-nominated film), the direction is solid and the film features some wide-screen cinematography along the way, despite a comparatively small budget and source material adapted from a stage play. This is a film to chew on for a while, in its operatic themes of redemption and blinding truth. Deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, Incendies also marks an odd development for Quebec cinema: a film that uses Montréal as a framing device for a story that takes place elsewhere. It’s good to see the local film industry look outside once in a while.