On that loosely improvised spectrum, The Red Violin falls about two-thirds of the way toward the latter films. It has 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 managed eventually 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 them 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 6-year-old prodigy (Christoph Koncz). Another hundred years pass before the instrument makes its 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 down the wrath of the Cultural Revolution 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 its cast and the success of director-cowriter Francois 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.
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 needs. 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 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 feet either.