The Lucky Bidder Beware

Anthology films are an odd-duck genre: Although there once was a time -- now long gone -- when books of short stories were published with nearly the frequency of novels, their cinematic equivalent has never amounted to even 1 percent of the fictional films released. You could argue that Pulp Fiction counts as an anthology, but its stories are too inextricably intertwined. Far at the other end of the spectrum are true anthology films, like The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Twilight Zone -- The Movie, and Tales From the Hood.

On that loosely improvised spectrum, The Red Violin falls about two-thirds of the way toward the latter films. It comprises five stories, one of which also serves as a framing device for the other four. As in the amusing 1993 Twenty Bucks, the separate narratives are linked by the titular object. But while Twenty Bucks eventually managed to bring its stories together a little, The Red Violin makes its central spine a mystery... a mystery that is cleverly revealed near the end.

The film starts in Montreal, where an auctioneer (Colm Feore) is about to start the bidding on a reddish-tinted violin, which, we learn, is the most fabled and sought-after instrument of its kind in the world. Among those in attendance are Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), the expert who has authenticated it, and Evan Williams (Don McKellar), the techie who aided him. Each time we meet one of the prime bidders, the film flashes back to reveal the incident that has inspired him or her to pony up millions for this 300-year-old curio.

First we go to Cremona, where master violinmaker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) is putting the finishing touches on the instrument. His pregnant wife visits a tarot reader, who foretells a grim, exciting, and impossibly incident-filled fate for the young woman.

A hundred years later, the violin turns up in an Austrian monastery, where master music teacher Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) discovers a dazzling six-year-old prodigy (Christoph Koncz). Another hundred years pass before the instrument makes it way into the hands of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a famous virtuoso-composer who is the classical equivalent of a pop star. And 70 years later it shows up in Shanghai, where its presence threatens to bring the wrath of the Cultural Revolution down on its owner (Sylvia Chang).

In all these stories, the violin is the catalyst for catastrophe -- it seems to carry a curse, as repeated flashbacks to the tarot reading emphasize. Finally we are brought back to the weeks before the auction, where we follow Morritz's discovery of the violin and his eventual unraveling of its secret.

The Red Violin arrives here on the strength of both its cast and the success of director-cowriter François Girard's last effort, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The two films have more in common than their musical subject matter; Glenn Gould was another fragmented narrative, presenting brief elliptical sketches in hopes of capturing at least some notion of the eccentric pianist.

The earlier film was like a postmodern or cubist portrait of its subject. The Red Violin is far less daring. The sum of its parts may constitute a mystery and a solution, but it's a completely fictional and arbitrary one. Without the contrast of a real-life focus, the movie is more abstract: We are inevitably faced with the question of why we should be interested in this make-believe object and its history.

The obvious answer is that storytelling is its own reward; an engaging narrative needs no other justification. But the narrative better be engaging if the entire exercise is to have any aesthetic purpose, and in the case of The Red Violin, the filmmakers just barely squeak by. Girard has mounted a handsome production, featuring several first-rate actors. (Either an uncredited Minnie Driver or her double shows up in a cameo as a gypsy.) He wisely obtained composer John Corigliano and violinist Joshua Bell to contribute to the score.

But, that said, I suspect the film's texture and structure are more a result of the current state of film financing than of any inherent thematic need. The Red Violin reeks of the International Coproduction Syndrome: The settings are determined by the needs of the entities putting up the money. Officially, this is a Canadian/Italian coproduction, but it was also funded by New Line, England's Channel Four, and the Vienna Film Financing Fund. (Somewhere in the background, there just has to have been Chinese participation as well.)

As a result The Red Violin's mandated narrative is carried more by stylistic and structural tricks than by much of a plot. With so much leaping around in time and such a speedy resolution to each individual segment, it's unlikely that anyone will be bored. But it's just as unlikely that anyone will be swept off his or her feet, either.

The Red Violin.
Directed by Francois Girard. Written by Girard and Don McKellar. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi, Sylvia Chang, Carlo Cecchi, Jean-Luc Bideau, and Christoph Koncz.

 
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