Accomplished Belgian cinematographer Charlie Van Damme, who lensed some Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda films, makes his feature directorial debut with “The Violin Player,” a pretentious movie that mythologizes “true” musicians as a special species, able to reach out and transform the masses through art. This laboriously ponderous pic, which exhibits all the cliches of a European art film , may delight users of the Paris metro, where the narrative is set, and of perhaps a few other Continental undergrounds, but it’s not likely to excite American passengers.
Tale starts when Armand (Richard Berry), a dark-haired, severe-looking classical violinist, decides to parachute out of the orchestra circuit, leaving behind a most promising career. Cutting himself off completely from his chic music milieu, he begins to live a meager existence in the Paris metro, absorbed by the mysterious life there that’s created by its random aggregate of passengers and the resident beggars and tramps.
Narrative stretches place over a yearlong period, with time marked by the metro’s changing seasons. There, in the “lower depth,” Armand befriends Lydia (Ines de Medeiros), a charming employee who becomes intrigued with his conduct. Lydia is contrasted with Ariane (Geno Lechner), a singer who early on reproaches Armand for being too demanding and harsh on himself.
Regrettably, the script offers only vague reasons why Armand forsakes his brilliant career. This is done through a series of flashbacks to his friendship with another genius musician who committed suicide while experiencing a personal and professional crisis. Most of “The Violin Player,” however, focuses on Armand’s newly gained consciousness and determination to make his gifts accessible to the masses. In its unabashedly populist message, pic aspires to show how the magic of music can touch people in a transcendental, quasi-religious fashion.
Sporting the same cliches of other French pix about artists, most recently “Un Coeur en hiver” and “Tous les Matins du monde,” film posits creativity as a solitary phenomenon and “true” artists as tormented souls — as if agony and grief are prerequisites for producing great art.
“The Violin Player” depicts at length Armand’s elan while playing to the public, fulfilling his goal of challenging such modern urban maladies as loneliness and indifference. It also draws a distinction between audiences who passively listen to music and those rapturously embracing it.
In the film’s most embarrassing sequence, the effect of Armand’s music is chronicled through reaction shots of his entranced audience — a young couple become so aroused they leave the metro, a beggar suddenly feels an urge to share his one slice of bread with another miserable fellow, a woman begins to move in an expressive manner.
Reportedly, it took two years and a long uphill battle to finance this co-production, whose visual sheen is far more impressive than its symbolically pregnant narrative. On the plus side, virtuoso violinist Gideon Kremer, who is credited as technical adviser, performs a radiant version of Johann-Sebastian Bach’s “The Chaconne.” Use of classical music (by Ysaye, Beethoven) somehow helps to make this stale and unexciting film a bit more tolerable.