Review: 'The Red Violin' strings viewers along
June 16, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- There's a great Anthony Mann western from 1950 called "Winchester '73," in which cowboy Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) spends most of the movie tracking down his prized stolen rifle. The rifle is an ingenious screenwriting device because all Mann has to do to change directions is have somebody new pick it up and walk off with it, with Stewart hot on the trail.
To some degree, François Girard's "The Red Violin" works the same way. The difference is that the violin of the title (a much-valued masterpiece of acoustic clarity) actually travels across history -- from 17th-century Italy (with an important stopover in Germany) to Britain in the 1800s, then to Chairman Mao's China, and finally to a present-day auction house in Montreal.
Girard, whose last major film was the critically well-received "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," likes to play with structure. So he repeatedly interrupts the violin's journey with cuts to that auction house, where Samuel L. Jackson (as Charles Morritz) watches bidding near the $2 million mark. It's not until the end of the film that you find out who Jackson is and why he's so interested in the auction. And the reason isn't exactly a surprise.
What is surprising is the fluctuating quality of the stories that Girard and co-writer Don McKellar choose to tell. For all its ambition, the film should be called "Five Short Films About a Violin, Two of Which are Pretty Lousy."
Self-expression and Girard
The violin comes to represent the value of unbridled self-expression, something that's gotten more and more difficult to pull off as we've entered our frenetic modern age. Girard's first two stories are by far the most powerful of the bunch, so in the early going it's easy to be fooled into thinking the movie's going to be a major work of art. The auction frames (and, as I've said, interrupts) the other stories.
But the real opening deals with an Italian violin maker (played by Nicolo Bussotti) who painstakingly completes the instrument he was preparing for his expected child -- after both the mother and baby die on the delivery bed.
The doomed mother had a servant read her Tarot cards shortly before the tragedy, and the various plot lines are directly linked to the readings, as it's the violin's future being predicted. (There turns out to be a very moving reason for this. I don't want to spoil it for you.)
The violin then winds up in the hands of a Viennese musical protégé, a boy who's being raised by monks in an orphanage. He's soon taken under the wing of a committed music teacher, and his strenuous training sessions are the most effective part of the entire film.
The child is being groomed for an unexpected life of fame and fortune, but the playing of music is presented as far more than economic pay dirt. It's nothing less than a spiritual release.
Girard isn't afraid to hyperventilate a little when it comes to the force of sound and melody (Gould, of his first film, was a famously eccentric classical pianist). The director's most readily apparent talent -- that is, when he's hitting on all pistons -- is the ability to convey that kind of awe without resorting to histrionics.
But the protégé, too, comes to a tragic end, and the violin winds up in England. Then we get the histrionics.
Protégés to prodigies
The next portion of the film is a study in the inspirational powers of a couple of evidently precisely tooled instruments -- the red violin and the penis of a hugely egotistical composer. Jason Flemyng plays the composer as if he's a cross between Franz Lizst and Mick Jagger during his "Get Yer Ya-Yas Out" period, with Greta Scacchi on hand as his oversexed muse. Given the quality of the previous sequences, this one is stunningly foolish, both in conception and execution.
A couple of shots are real howlers, including the sight of Flemyng locked in Playboy Channel intercourse with a young female fan while he's playing the violin. Those of you who've had intercourse might wonder how he keeps his mind on the various fingering techniques. The rest of you may just wonder where the exceptional film you were watching suddenly disappeared to.
Well, it shows up again for a final movement, but the encore doesn't work out so well. Scacchi ends up shooting the violin, a "fiery" moment that wouldn't look out of place in one of Fabio's "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" commercials. And then we're in China, where Mao's Army is busy squelching the sounds of Western music.
There are some honestly wrenching scenes of suppression here, and you do feel a pang when it seems the violin has been destroyed in a bonfire. But it hasn't been destroyed, of course, so we wind up right back where we started, with Samuel Jackson watching the bidding.
We now discover that Morritz, Jackson's character, is an expert on classical instruments, and he's slowly pieced together that this red violin is The Legendary Red Violin, the one that music enthusiasts have been seeking for years.
Jackson is completely out of his element, not that he should play only gun-toting psychopaths in Quentin Tarantino films ("Pulp Fiction," 1994). He just seems uneasy with a lot of his speechifying, as if he knows he's looking a little silly but can't turn back. He registers the proper astonishment while taking in the music. But a bit of subterfuge he pulls in the film's last scene is a lot more awkward than clever.
This film has its sweetly musical passages, but a lot of the notes stand out as clinkers.
"The Red Violin" has a little bit of everything: Violence, nudity, laughable sex and an enraged woman attempting to shoot an orchestral instrument. Girard should have stopped a couple of times to re-tune. Not Rated. 130 minutes.
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