(English, Italian, German, French and Mandarin dialogue.)
A saga of love and music spanning more than 300 years, Canadian director Francois Girard’s follow-up to his well-regarded “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” is nothing if not ambitious. Unfortunately, the episodic pic, which follows the fortunes of a perfectly crafted violin that is linked to a bloody secret, fails on a number of counts, mostly because the individual stories aren’t very gripping. Fine Line will have to market this one carefully to find an appreciative audience, and may not be helped by mixed critical response, if the screening at Venice is a pointer. Film gets its North American launch as opening attraction at the Toronto fest.
This kind of packaging, in which several short stories are linked to an inanimate object, was once fairly common in films; prominent examples of the genre include Julien Duvivier’s 1942 “Tales of Manhattan” (in which the object was a tuxedo) and Anthony Asquith’s self-explanatory “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” ( 1965).
Pic is structured around an auction taking place in Montreal in which a number of valuable instruments, including a Stradivarius, are on the block; but the piece de resistance is the famous Red Violin, crafted in 1681 by Italian master Nicolo Bussotti. The instrument is, according to the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, “the perfect marriage of science and beauty” and “the single most perfect acoustic machine” — quite a wrap.
Complex flashback structure intercuts between the investigations of New York expert Charles Morritz (Jackson) into the authenticity of the instrument, while four principal stories centering on the violin’s colorful past unreel chronologically.
The first deals with the production of the instrument and the trauma endured by Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) when his wife dies in childbirth. Next tale unveils late in the 18th century, with the violin owned by Austrian monks who encourage orphaned children to play it. One such child (Christoph Koncz) has such exceptional talent that the monks persuade French music teacher Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) to guide the prodigy. This story, too, ends in tragedy.
About a hundred years later, in England in 1893, the violin, which has been owned by generations of Gypsies in the meantime, falls into the hands of the mercurial, devilish composer Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), who is involved in a steamy sexual relationship with novelist Victoria Byrd (Greta Scacchi), a relationship in which the violin plays an important part. Pope’s Chinese servant takes the violin with him when he returns to Shanghai, and it eventually finds a home with a bourgeois Chinese couple.
Final story unfolds during the Cultural Revolution, with Sylvia Chang playing a Communist Party official who entrusts the now almost priceless violin to her music teacher to save it from being destroyed by fanatical Maoists.
Eventually the auction, attended by various descendants of the characters in the four stories, is completed, with a not-unexpected twist saved for the film’s conclusion.
Apart from the English story, most of “The Red Violin” falls into the decent but dull category. The narratives aren’t especially interesting, witty or unusual, and, curiously enough, it’s the modern segment — the auction itself and Morritz’s investigations into the background of the violin, which most hold the interest. The Italian and Austrian sequences provide opportunities for sumptuous art direction and costume design, but are dramatically inert. And though it covers familiar territory, the Chinese segment has an energy lacking in much of the rest of the film.
But the section set in England seems to belong to another pic altogether; incredibly silly and trashy, it includes such lines as “I feel a composition coming on” and scenes in which Flemyng and Scacchi, both unclad, seem to be getting off on the violin rather than on each other.
Production values are exceedingly sleek, and there’s plenty of glorious violin music to enjoy. But other music used in the film is unduly schmaltzy; given that film is in part about music, this is especially unfortunate.