Anybody who wants to understand the perils of big-budget international filmmaking can find a textbook case in the soupy, lavish excess of "The Red Violin." Made at terrific expense and with admirable craft across three continents and five languages (not counting two French dialects), the film features some stirring scenes and at least as many laughable ones, but it still ends up as superficial eye candy. Viewers in the public-radio demographic may find it a civilized alternative to summer multiplex fare, but it's almost as lame-brained as any Hollywood blockbuster, if prettier and more pretentious. "The Red Violin" has marvelous cinematography, a clever structure and a beautiful score by the eminent American composer John Corigliano, but what it doesn't have is any coherent story to tell, or any reason to exist beyond admiring its own beauty.
This is what used to be called an omnibus film, albeit with one director; in it, we follow a central symbol -- the last violin made by 17th century Cremonese craftsman Niccolo Bussotti, finished with a mysterious red varnish -- across the ages into the present day. French-Canadian director Frangois Girard ("Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould") has said he wanted to use the violin to link different historical eras and different filmmaking genres. That's all right as a starting point, but the episodes in the violin's history don't add up to much on their own, despite their opulent production design, and Girard and Don McKellar's screenplay increasingly insists that the violin itself, rather than the people around it, is the focus of the story. So this isn't quite a social comedy built around a totem -- à la Max Ophuls' "The Earrings of Madame de ..." -- and it doesn't have the guts to be a "Tales of the Crypt"-style horror anthology about an accursed object. Instead, its message is something along the lines of "Ah, Art! Ah, Humanity!"
Girard has a first-class eye for color and texture, and his cinematographer, Alain Dostie, supplies many surpassingly lovely shots, in a conventional Eurofilm mode. The early scenes in Cremona are suffused with the dusty Mediterranean daylight of Renaissance painting, the Chinese Cultural Revolution is captured in straightforward primary colors and an upscale auction house in contemporary Montreal is depicted in cool, clinical grays and pastels. Girard's ambitious structure seeks to intercut the stories of the violin's creation and of its reappearance three centuries later, gradually filling in the details about what happened to it in between. This technical problem is so adroitly handled that it took me about half the movie to realize that I didn't give a damn about this violin, and didn't understand why anybody else did either.
Anchoring this movie at either end, like a pair of carved bookends, are two actors whose inscrutable gravity almost makes the whole thing work. Veteran Italian theater actor Carlo Cecchi, as Bussotti, exudes a dark blend of arrogance and suffering, completing his last and best violin in despair after his lovely young wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), dies in childbirth. (If you can't guess the violin's "secret" in the first 20 minutes, you should get out more.) As Charles Morritz, the appraiser who successfully identifies this legendary lost instrument in 1997, Samuel L. Jackson enjoyably brings his don't-fuck-with-me demeanor to the realm of haute commerce. Morritz is given to staring expressionlessly at the instrument while Corigliano's score emphasizes the contemplative mode; this is nearly enough to convince us that this discovery is the culmination of Morritz's professional life. But like almost everyone and everything else in "The Red Violin," Morritz has no depth or dimension -- he's a terrific wardrobe and a set of signature gestures, not a character.
Shortly before her death, Anna Bussotti has a tarot reading, and the old woman who tells her fortune forecasts a long and eventful life. As we soon realize, the long life is not Anna's but the violin's; it goes to a doomed child prodigy in an Austrian orphanage, then through several generations of Gypsy fiddlers to a Victorian virtuoso and finally across the sea to a Shanghai pawnshop. By far the best of these episodes concerns Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang), a Communist Party official during the Cultural Revolution who keeps the red violin her mother bought her -- a tangible symbol of bourgeois decadence -- hidden under her floorboards. For the only time in "The Red Violin," the instrument itself, set against this background of tremendous drama and tragedy, becomes the embodiment of personal and aesthetic passions just as the filmmakers wish it to.
At the opposite extreme, there's the hilariously overheated Victorian melodrama of violin virtuoso Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) and his lover Victoria (Greta Scacchi), who are constantly engaged in improbable sexual gymnastics while he saws away on his instrument. When Victoria returns from an overseas trip to find the Mick Jagger-esque Frederick in bed with another woman, she grabs a pistol and shoots the violin, exclaiming, "O sluttish Muse!" It's possible this sequence is intended to be funny, but most of the movie is so soberly, shallowly arty that I'm not sure Girard is constitutionally capable of humor. Whether this interlude is an attempt at levity or erotica, it's embarrassing.
There's certainly nothing wrong with upscale movies that pursue entertainment rather than edification -- the finest works of Bergman and Renoir, in my view, are their comedies. But what's distressing about "The Red Violin" is that it takes so much money, such a glittering international cast and so much technical expertise, and squanders them on an instantly forgettable mishmash that tries to belong to every country, every period of history. Girard is a talented director who badly needs to have his impulses checked. Next time, he should use his frequent-flyer miles for a vacation and make a movie set in a specific place and time.