By Indiewire | Indiewire May 28, 1999 at 2:0AM
BIZ: "The Red Violin" Plays Passionately, without Resonance
by Danny Lorber
"The Red Violin" falls into the mini-genre of films in which the narrative is based on the path on which a certain object travels through time. For example, the early-'90s indie "Twenty Bucks" followed a $20 bill as it passed through one person's hands to the next, and we saw numerous "slices" from the lives of myriad characters. This type of story telling is pretty schematic and usually contrived, for it asks us to assume that the object itself is an animated specimen, that its mere and specific presence in a room or on a person is affecting and perhaps even altering, life. It seems to me that someone going about making a film like this would be better served picking a more philosophical thread to tie a series of short films together. On an intellectual level, a number of short stories about a tangible object such as paper money or a musical instrument is hardly as interesting as seeing a series of shorts that tell of the way music and money affects our lives.
Directed and co-written by French Canadian François Girard (who previously made the undeniably artful but difficult "Thirty Two Short Films About Glen Gould") "The Red Violin," begins its story in a high level auction house in modern-day Montreal, where an unusual violin famous for its reddish hue is on the blocks. Quickly, Girard takes us back to 17th century Italy, where we meet master violin-maker Nicola Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), who is creating that same violin for his unborn son. When Bussotti's wife, Anna, dies in childbirth, the violin becomes the representation of Bussotti's grief. From the moment of Anna's death, the violin embarks on a journey through time, following the metaphysical path that a reader of Tarot cards had predicted for Anna's life -- it seems her spirit has settled into the violin itself.
The journey the red violin takes is vast and impressive. It first lands in an Austrian musical monastery, where, after about a century, it falls into the hands of a 6-year-old prodigy. Because of the boy's brilliant talents, he moves to France with a music master, who is disapproving of the boys emotional dependency on the violin, and demands that the boy separate himself from the violin when not in the act of playing it. This literally damages the boy's heart and during a strenuous audition, the kid drops dead.
The violin is buried with the boy, yet it soon falls into the hands of grave diggers, and then into the hands of Frederick Pope (Jason Fleming) a Byronic violinist whose slinky and sexy stage presence and gorgeous, energetic playing have made him a star. Pope creates beautiful music on the violin, but he can only create in the act of sexual passion. Sleeping with his lover (Greta Scacchi) is his required muse.
After a stop off in China during the Communist revolution, the violin lands at the Montreal auction house, where stuffy, stuck up New York violin expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) mounts an investigation to authenticate the violin as the famed instrument - which he considers the ultimate example of "science, beauty and perfection."
Told with broad strokes, "The Red Violin" is a Euro-flavored art film that disregards subtlety - its characters are extra emotional, extra nuanced -- and it's full of hyperbole and passion but it lacks depth in character. It's the type of film that has too much heart and sentimentality, though it pretends that it's trying to avoid those things.
The movie drifts from one story to the next, using the present day auction as a bridge between tales -- and its watchable to a point, but never really compelling. Girard is obviously preaching about the power that the creation of music has on particular lives, but he could have been a lot more eloquent. In "Thirty Two Short Films..." his story telling was as boring as it was ambiguous, but it always seemed lyrical and thought provoking. He doesn't leave too much room for thought here; the movie is so simple that it nearly feels like a child's film.
A mean spirited child's film, that is. It's strange and unnecessary that nearly every character in the film is emotionally cold, even nasty. These people revere their instrument, but we certainly don't revere them. Most problematic here is the Pope character; he's brilliant all right, but also oily, egotistical, sex crazed and completely unpleasant. Jackson's part seems like a negative foreigner's perception of an intellectual New Yorker. Morritz has been written as arrogant and mean, and for no real reason.
"The Red Violin" ends cleverly -- and because of its structural trickery, it keeps us curious and compelled throughout. Yet one leaves the theater with a shrug and a wince - here's a movie that always seems like it could get really interesting, but it never does. The characters in "The Red Violin, " not to mention its creator, seem to respect the instrument more than the beauty it creates. Don't they know that our passions are usually directed towards the intangible?