A Life on Strings


An omnibus film constructed around a
single fetish object, The Red Violin spans three continents, four centuries, and five languages. On the surface, the movie has high-artsy aspirations—it means to be opulent, expansive, romantic, cultivated. But it sustains its purplish, epic sweep by thrusting broadly etched characters into extravagantly hokey situations, and registers mainly as a flamboyant joke—one that’s most engaging when it’s neither too knowing nor too clueless, when it’s ambiguous about how seriously it’s taking its absurdity.

The violin of the title is a model of late-17th-century Italian craftsmanship, a flawless instrument capable of the most exquisite sounds—it is, as Samuel L. Jackson’s awestruck present-day musicologist says while affecting a moony Gwyneth Paltrow–esque expression, “the ultimate…thing.” The fate of the remarkably durable instrument, which conveniently changes hands at regular intervals, is revealed in disparate vignettes.

From Italy, where its creator’s wife dies in childbirth, the violin is transported to Austria, where, a century
later, it is inherited by a child prodigy—a frail orphan for whom a brief separation from his beloved violin proves unbearably traumatic. The subsequent, insanely florid English sequence features strutting virtuoso Jason Flemyng, his vampy novelist lover Greta Scacchi, and the violin as instrument of seduction, sex tool, and object of jealousy. Much more muted but no less ridiculous is the Shanghai episode, in which a closet violinist (Sylvia Chang) heroically saves the instrument from a Cultural Revolution burning.

Director François Girard and his cowriter, the actor Don McKellar (who has a small, typically nebbishy role here and whose own film, Last Night, opens later this year), previously collaborated on Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic diffused into a surprisingly lucid mosaic. In formal terms The Red Violin is merely fussy, its musty chain-reaction anthology ensnared within a structure that’s at once elaborate and obvious. Chronological bookends double as framing devices—the narrative flashes back repeatedly to a tarot card reading (in which it soon becomes clear that the foretold fortunes are not those of the Italian violin maker’s doomed wife but of the instrument) and forward to an auction in present-day Montreal. The tarot portents pompously set up each segment, which in turn ends with the cursory introduction of a newly relevant party among the bidders clamoring to purchase the violin. Two parallel mysteries are teased out—one concerning the fate of the instrument (i.e., the outcome of the auction), the other concerning the secret of its perfect acoustics and radiant hue; you see both coming miles off. Still, The Red Violin is about as watchable as a massively flawed, woolly-headed two-hour-plus movie gets—this has much to do with John Corigliano’s lively score, some unintentionally funny performances, and the fact that the vignettes are all shrewdly terminated just as dullness is setting in.