Finnish playwright Paavo Westerberg makes his directorial debut with this tale of musical obsession
Dir/scr. Paavo Westerberg. Finland. 2018. 119 min.
The Violin Player begins with existential crisis, shifts into marital melodrama and ends as kind of morality play, evoking both Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash at different intervals. This directorial debut from Finnish playwright Paavo Westerberg certainly can’t be faulted for lack of ambition, though some tonal registers are more successful than others. At its best, the film poses a terrifying question – what happens when one’s fixed self-identity crumbles? – even if the answers it comes up with are less than persuasive.
By the third act, the film deflates into a more rote morality play
Marking its international premiere in Gothenburg following an early January release back home, this mid-life character study should yield polite, if less than exuberant, reviews. The fact that much of the dialogue is in English could open additional avenues on the international market, while actress Matleena Kuusniemi’s quietly emotive lead performance can only help.
Kuusniemi plays Karin, an internationally acclaimed concert violinist so singularly focused that even her birthday cake is shaped like a violin. A car accident early on leaves her with drastic nerve damage on her right hand, so bad that she can never play again. For someone like Karin, the crash might as well have killed her.
Much of The Violin Player’s powerful first third plays like a sophisticated European Yin to The Rider’s cowboy Yang, burrowing into Karin’s suddenly unmoored sense of self and tracing out the crises that evokes. Married to doting Jaako (Samuli Edelmann) and owner of a lakefront estate straight out of a lifestyle magazine, Karin slowly suffocates at the prospect of a comfortable, concert-free life. Her fresh burst of air arrives in the guise of Antti (Olavi Uusivirta), a twentysomething conservatory student with whom she quickly begins an affair.
At first, this illicit coupling pays off in intriguing thematic returns; Karin and Antti seem less driven by physical infatuation for one another than by the single-minded infatuation they both share for the violin. Westerberg reiterates as much by shooting violin performances in tight, handheld close-ups, emphasising the tactile and even rather sensual intimacy between a violinist and their – ahem– instrument.
But as the film goes on, and Antti assumes a more prominent role driving the plot, things deflate into a more rote morality play. The film’s final third, which finds Antti, Karin and mercurially menacing conductor Björn (Kim Bodnia) preparing for a Mendelssohn concerto in Copenhagen, forgoes those psychosexual investigations for a “does the kid have what it takes/will he lose his soul in the process?” Whiplash rehash.
Even though Karin’s pivot to Antti makes narrative sense – the former star training the next one and all that – the film loses a step when it shifts focus. Whereas initially the title took on a cruelly ironic bite – with her injury, Karin was anything but a violin player – that narrative’s shift to Antii renders the title all too literal, and not as interesting.
Technical specs remain solid throughout, and the choice to forgo an original score for existing musical sources lends the film an appealing high-culture heft.
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Producers: Mikko Tenhunen, Ulla Simonen
Cinematography: Marek Wieser
Editor: Samu Heikkilä
Production design: Sattva-Hanna Toiviainen
Main cast: Kim Bodnia, Samuli Edelmann, Matleena Kuusniemi, Olavi Uusivirta