An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 13
Having begun to explore the topic of David Garrett as a musician (via YouTube only) and having heard him speak about The Devil’s Violinist in interviews and onstage, it became of course important to take a look at this film, even though it is long past newsworthy and everybody has had their say about it. The reviews I scanned beforehand were scathing, but I kept an open mind and formed my own opinion.
Jumping right in, it seems to me that this film struggles with a fundamental problem: namely with the fact that the moment David Garrett appears on screen – and he is never absent for very long – he is much more fascinating than Paganini. My interest in the actor blots out my interest in the character he portrays, and unfortunately the story never comes to Paganini’s rescue. Garrett vs. Paganini is the title of the CD that goes with The Devil’s Violinist, and Garrett versus Paganini could well be the programmatic title of what goes on in this film.
It seems that many critics have put the blame for the fact that it cannot be regarded as a successful movie squarely on David Garrett’s lack of acting skills. My impression is that another director could and would have made more of his potential. Given the fact that he is not an actor, why does he get so little help from the staging and the camera? Why is it that in more than one scene he has to act in a gruesome emotional vacuum, surrounded by extras that might as well be statues? Where he has to provide all the life, the action, the emotion – and all by himself?
I am thinking of that ghastly scene where he – no, Paganini – gambles his violin away. Or the soirée at his own casino in Paris, a setting that has all the lively ambiance of a morgue; reminiscent of badly-staged school plays, but entirely without their charm. Surely even professional actors might struggle in such unhelpful surroundings? But despite it all, the reason why large numbers of people love this film and have watched it repeatedly and with pleasure must be the fact that David Garrett is involved, whatever the views of his acting.
YouTube fan comments: “The Devil’s Violinist is a great movie. Must see.” – “Magnifica pelicula, me enamore.” – ” It’s really an amazing movie, though truly sad! ” – “David Garrett is a very talented violinist but an actor he is not. Although I liked this movie.” – “It’s not that bad, actually, and David plays all the pieces. He is quite amazing.” – “If you like classical music, play an instrument and like to see hot guys, this is the movie for you!” – “As a fan of violin music I enjoyed it.” – “Paganini saying that everything he is and feels and wants to be he puts into the music … well, that sounds like David Garrett!” – “The story was garbage, the only scenes that were captivating were when he actually played.” – “Simplesmente divino, simplesmente David Garrett!” – “The movie really gets to your emotions!” – “Totally love this, watching with a big smile plastered on my face. How can you not fall in love with this German human … my oh my!” – “Love it, gave the movie 5 stars. David is awesome.” – “La escena que me hizo llorar ¡Felicidades! excelente película.” – “Such a masterful violinist and so inspiring to watch and listen to.” – “I love this movie!” – “I just discovered David from watching The Devil’s Violinist. Wow. Great movie, and even greater performances by David Garrett.”
Take him away, and the film crumbles to insignificance. Yet David’s involvement does cause a problem, simply through the personality clash of Paganini and Garrett. Despite all the things they have in common, David gets in the way of his character big time and through no fault of his own, for the Devilish Violinist was by all accounts a sombre, torn and driven individual of questionable morals and seriously bad health. David Garrett, however, appears to be none of these things. He radiates soundness of character and wholesome healthiness even on his – no, Paganini’s – supposed deathbed, and I strongly suspect that Niccolò did not possess the light of kindness that is so particular to David’s eyes. Garrett is too nice a person to portray a demonic Paganini credibly, and of course we would not have it any other way. He cannot but give the impression that Paganini was a decent, kindly man who wanted to do the right thing and cared deeply about those he loved (the mother of his child, then his son, and later Charlotte) but was beset by misfortune and bedevilled by the unfortunate company he kept.
Could this problem have been foreseen? Certainly, though likely not by David. If only someone had talked him out of playing the lead part himself! Have him write the film music by all means, let him play it of course, double the performance scenes and have close-ups of his fingers whizzing along the strings. But let the face and figure of Paganini be that of an unknown actor with suitably haggard mien and dark looks, of scraggy build and “with the movements of a monkey” … Only then might Paganini have stood a chance.
David stated in interviews that he thought it a problem if the actor who played a musician was not a proficient musician himself. Yet there is evidence to the contrary. It worked very well for Ladies in Lavender, where Joshua Bell provided his musical skill while Daniel Brühl, who had never touched a violin before, portrayed a violinist very credibly. It worked for Amadeus and Tom Hulce who, although no pianist, looked so believable at the instrument. It was a masterstroke of inspired casting. Hulce was unknown to us, so we easily accepted that he could be Mozart, and the marvellous medium of make-believe did the rest. Both script and production of Amadeus never allowed for one moment of doubt, even where we knew the story to depart from the actual facts of Mozart’s life. The Devil’s Violinist could have done for Paganini what Amadeus did for Mozart, but sadly it falls a long way short of that achievement.
Why did Seven Years in Tibet work so well, even though the casting of Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer presented much the same problem that Garrett and Paganini face? Pitt is so much more real and appealing to us than Harrer. We never quite manage to see the one as the other and may come away with the impression that it was indeed Brad Pitt who taught the Dalai Lama the ways of the Western World. But the story is told in such a captivating way, it never makes us question its veracity for a moment.
Not so The Devil’s Violinist. That script suffers from a whole palette of ills. An underlying hurriedness does not allow Paganini’s story to develop visually. The narrative relies too often on snatches of conversation that seem contrived. Many scenes are shorthand for some important part of Paganini’s life, but we hardly ever get to see what we are told. On top of that, pretty much every scene is showing us an uncomfortable or unhappy situation. There is no balance, no pause of an enjoyable nature, and so the viewer is soon enveloped in a shroud of dejection as a sinking feeling of dread invades him like that dense London smog.
Excepting those far-too-few moments when David Garrett plays the violin and the scene suddenly comes alive. What Garrett can do with the tune of God save the King has to be heard to be believed. To me, it is easily the highlight of the film. Here, a true musician speaks music, straight from the heart and with heartrending skill. This tune we know so well – one might say too well – is taken apart and, simultaneously, put together new in those chords, while our ear is bound expectantly to each moment as we anticipate each successive bar’s new revelation with delight.
It is spectacular, dazzling, sensational – and it almost makes me forget to wonder if a theatre full of British subjects would really have remained silent in the presence of their King. Wouldn’t they all have been singing the anthem? Wasn’t it mandatory at the time, a matter of etiquette? … If a story is well told, such questions do not arise in the viewer’s mind, but in the course of this film they pop up with disturbing regularity.
David Garrett: “You can’t make everybody happy. Here’s the thing: So far, I haven’t read anything negative about the music, and for me that was the real reason why I did this project. And if nobody’s attacking the music, I’m totally fine … (impish grin) … I never said I’m Al Pacino. But, you know … if people enjoy the music, then I did a good job.”
We surely do enjoy it. How could we not? But there is not nearly enough of Garrett’s playing. That supposedly central topic of the film, the musical dimension of Paganini’s genius, is hardly explored at all. We learn more about Paganini’s innovations to the playing of the violin from David Garrett’s interviews than from this film, and so The Devil’s Violinist remains a study of Garrett as Paganini, not of Paganini as a musician. It gives the impression that Paganini managed to have just one successful concert in London, was jailed afterwards for failing to seduce a minor, was miserable and unsuccessful in Paris, and then retired to Italy a broken man, to write down his music with rapidly failing health and strength. Wikipedia, amongst other sources, tells a different and more plausible story.
A pervading lack of plausibility blights the script of The Devil’s Violinist. Take an early scene, for example, where Paganini is seen asleep in a hotel room he has not yet paid for, with a woman next to him. The hotel manager bursts in rudely and makes trouble, followed by the mysterious Urbani who will, a few moments later, be asking Paganini to sign away his soul for international success.
But instead of being captivated by the unfolding story, my mind gets sidetracked by questions. Would an experienced hotel manager really walk in on a sleeping guest and expect to be paid on the spot? It hardly seems likely. And: David Garrett in bed – and not alone? … Even though I am trying hard to pretend that it is indeed Paganini I’m seeing here, this pretence dissolves under the pleading look on his face as he urges his lady not to leave. Whatever I expect of Paganini, it is not such tender commitment to his lover. And in this match of Garrett vs. Paganini, it is Garrett who wins the first round hands down.
Urbani then makes a credible push to lay before us the difficulties of Paganini’s position as an indigent musician whom nobody appreciates and who cannot do without managerial assistance. At this point, the story could really begin to roll. I am ready to suspend my disbelief once more and to get involved in Paganini’s life – were it not for the fact that the camera is now showing us the inviting expanse of David’s bare back. For an instant this is of course delightful, but the next moment I ask myself why this particular angle was chosen. Because it doesn’t help David, and it certainly doesn’t help Paganini, who has just lost the second round to Garrett … Regarding the quality of a movie, it is never a good sign should the viewer begin to think about camera angles.
Later, when Paganini embraces his little son, we see what David Garrett might be like, one day, as a father, and our hearts melt collectively. Who still thinks of Paganini at this point? And so it goes, scene after scene – game, set and match to Garrett. Poor Paganini never stands a chance.
And there is always some detail that raises questions and prevents me from becoming fully immersed in the story. Example? Though I am just about willing, for the story’s sake, to accept that Watson’s graceful and pretty young daughter must double as a servant – though it goes without saying that no husband’s wife would ever have hired her – it troubles me to see all these men standing by and looking idly on as she heaves supposedly heavy luggage up the stairs by herself. Yes, it was an age of exploitation, but also one of chivalry … And while these doubts assail my mind, I cannot help but notice that a trunk of this size must necessarily be empty if such a slight girl is to carry it at all.
Or this: Urbani is trying to persuade, nay bribe the girl with the offer of a necklace so hideous it would not tempt a shortsighted magpie. Why he whispers “perfection” when she dumps it into the pasta remains a mystery. And no one seems to care that Garrett’s – no, Paganini’s – dinner is getting cold.
Oh, this Urbani! He is strikingly played by Jared Harris and appears to be a resourceful man. But this wily Mephisto to Paganini’s Faust soon reveals two fundamental flaws. Firstly, though his entrance is designed to make us believe that he has a connection with the supernatural – “It must be said three times!” – this is strangely also the last time any occult powers are alluded to. Secondly, although he has pledged to support Paganini’s career to the end (for the price of an immortal soul, no less) and has himself insisted on a written contract to this purpose, he is then seen to sabotage that career at almost every turn. Consequently, his actions not only obstruct Paganini’s success, but also my acceptance of the basic assumption this story builds upon.
Can there be any logic in taking Paganini away from his home in Vienna to develop his career abroad, only to turn the strident ladies of the Moral Strength League against him? What can possibly be the point of Urbani’s mission to make his protégé a raging success in London if he then sets off the Langham torpedo? Surely this constitutes a major breach of contract on his part? What is going on here? – Certainly nothing that sheds any light on the historical Paganini.
Then there is the puzzling matter of Charlotte’s and Garrett’s – no, Paganini’s – involvement. At first, Urbani attempts (in Charlotte’s own, disgusted words) to make her Paganini’s whore. But when she is at last ready to fall into his arms and his bed, Urbani intervenes with his habitual inconsistency and actually saves her from social ruin, disgrace and syphilis. Why, why, why? Does this make any sense at all?
While I am pondering this question, Paganini flees the country. His seemingly brief success is never resumed, at least not in this film, and neither is my interest in the story.
If a film does not work, it is the director who must accept responsibility. And this film does not work, no matter how much I would like it to. Now, Bernard Rose is a director who does not believe in rehearsals. He tells us so in the DVD’s bonus features interview, where he opines that it is practically always the first take that is the best. Though this may be a valid concept for film-making in theory, it does nothing for The Devil’s Violinist. Maybe it could work if the script were excellent, but who wrote the script? Ah, Bernard Rose. And who was responsible for the unhelpful camera work? The very same.
How David Garrett came to terms with an approach that is so opposed to his own working style (preparation, practice, and yet more practice) is anyone’s guess. He took care of the music and the instruments with careful attention to historic detail, therefore that side of it all is convincing. The film music is moving, his incredibly virtuosic playing truly astounding – but what good does all the attention to violins with gut strings and without tuners do if one of the characters then refers to the music industry? Would that term really have been used in the days of Charles Dickens, with the Industrial Revolution only just gathering steam? – With a mind full of doubt and dismay I find myself jolted off the story’s track once again.
And it is not the last time something or someone makes me think, hang on, could it really have happened in this way, at that time? Would a young girl of the age really have sat down unchaperoned with a stranger – and on his bed? … Goodness gracious! It was not to be thought of! Being alone with any man who was not a close relation meant social ruin and was certainly not allowed by parents hoping to see their daughter respectably married one day. Nor would any decent girl, such as this Charlotte, have considered it.
Regrettably, David mispronounces Charlotte’s name repeatedly. It is a peculiarity of the English language that even native speakers need to be taught the correct pronunciation of certain words and names, for English spelling so likes to leave the narrow path of logic for a frolic in the undergrowth of the fanciful. A real challenge to us foreigners! Who knew how to pronounce Sean before Connery, or Hermione before Harry Potter? So, in case you are wondering: the Ch in Charlotte is not that of Charles, charm and chocolate. It sounds like sharp or shallow. This is a minor issue of course, and surely the director could have eliminated it with ease – though it may have required a second take.
Then there is the character of Ethel Langham, a woman who struts onto the scene as if she had just stepped out of a time machine with a Black Belt in Feminism. Unfortunately for her, the style of this pre-Victorian age, following on from Jane Austen’s novels, has been adapted for television and film so often and with such a high degree of attention to historic accuracy that we now sense when something isn’t true to the manners and morals of the time. Something in this case being a brash, modern woman in a top hat, supposedly employed by that bastion of traditionalism, The Times. – Oh, really? I don’t believe it for a moment.
A bit of quick research later reveals that “The first female full-time employed journalist in Fleet Street was Eliza Lynn Linton, who was employed by The Morning Chronicle from 1848.” To wit, nearly twenty years later. She would certainly not have been influential in any meaningful sense of the word. Also: “Top hats were never intended to be worn by women.” Would such a male-dominated society have allowed it outside the cabaret? Extremely doubtful!
It seems that Bernard Rose is trying to rewrite history and present us with a version of Dickensian England that suits his taste better, but this hidden agenda interferes with the main concern of the film. Another example: Lord Burghersh, patron of the opera, is shown at his club and at the concert in the company of a young, pretty man who is clearly not his son. The impression conveyed is certainly not that homosexuality was regarded as a sin and a crime at the time, was illegal and punishable by death, and was therefore kept hidden in all circles of society. Quote: “80 men were hung for this offence in Great Britain between 1800 and 1834, when this punishment was replaced with life imprisonment.”
Then there are the largely deserted, squeaky-clean city streets which (although Watson mimes stepping into something unpleasant) never manage to convince that we are getting a glimpse of a real, living environment, despite the sad and lonely prostitute positioned specifically to tell us about the seedier side of London. Twice, in case we missed the point the first time.
And so on … The Devil’s Violinist, a film that should be all about music and the story of a great musician, is sabotaged by too many deficits apparent in the telling of it. Its characters, even the lovely John Watson and his daughter, are made into clichéd caricatures of themselves. Those sex scenes seem trite and superfluous. The CGI sunset over the docks makes one scan the scene for the easel of Mr William Turner, who must surely be about to sketch The Fighting Temeraire at that very moment … Oh, it is all so distracting, so aimless – and sadly also pointless.
The only visually redeeming feature of this film is that we get to watch David Garrett for two entire hours and see him perform some incredible violin pieces in costume. But don’t we feel sorry for him throughout? He is suffering so much – from ill health, from illicit love, from abandonment, heartbreak and general misfortune – and he never gets a chance to be the driving force I expected Paganini to be in this tale of his life.
So, all in all, my impression is this: Viewed from a perspective of passionate DG-fandom, the film probably can’t fail to delight. But when considered in the light of the laws of storytelling and movie-making, it fails to convince.
And yet I am certain that an angle could be found to make the elements of Paganini, his music, the violin and Garrett a successful combination, though I suspect it would take a more unconventional approach than a historically questionable costume drama to achieve it. Since it is so interesting to hear David Garrett talk about the history of violin playing, about music in general and Paganini in particular – why not have him tell the story of the devilish violinist to the camera, adding some of the better myths for good measure, between giving commented demonstrations of Paganini’s ground-breaking inventions on the instrument?
David is a natural entertainer and therefore an inspirational teacher. No acting required. No love story either. Who would not want to watch as he explains and demonstrates each Caprice and Concerto in turn? In this way, our interest in Garrett would serve Paganini well, and the focus would be on his MUSIC. It would no longer be a matter of Garrett versus Paganini, but of Garrett for Paganini … and I imagine it would be a triumph for them both.
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