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The Red Violin

Strong stories within a weak frame

By Fred Choi

Directed by Francois Girard

Written by Francois Girard, Don McKellar

With Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore

The Red Violin follows the pattern of stories such as “Tales from the Arabian Nights” in which several smaller stories are interwoven in a larger whole. The great difficulty inherent in such stories is not making the individual stories compelling, but in giving the work a purpose by creating a “frame” to which the shorter stories individually relate and by which the stories are given a meaningful relation to each other. The Red Violin, while an enjoyable and intriguing film, ultimately fails to fully satisfy due to its complex but weak frame.

The Red Violin tells the extraordinary history of an instrument, which is described as being “acoustically perfect.” The film begins with an auction of a large collection of rare instruments (featuring Colm Feore, the sublime star of Gerard’s acclaimed recent masterpiece 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, as the auctioneer). It quickly switches to a scene in Italy, in which the action focuses on the story of an instrument-maker, his pregnant wife, and the violin’s tragic beginnings.

The pleasingly lucid structure of the film soon emerges after we see the wife having her cards read by a servant and we note that each of the film’s sections is prefaced by the words of the servant as she reads another of the five cards. Each segment ends with the replaying of the scene at the auction in which we now understand why the people bidding on the violin want it.

This visually lavish film’s four stories and containing frame story span five countries (Italy, Austria, England, China, and Canada) and include a wonderfully wide range of emotion. Girard, echoing the skill he displayed in some portions of 32 Short Films, masterfully directs the viewer’s emotions through the tacit but tangible thought-provoking commentary in each of the scenes, such as the way Western music could be used as a symbol of evil in early Communist China. This subtext adds an extra dimension to the work, and gives the viewer things to mull over after the film is over.

Despite the power of the four segments and many strong performances (most notably in the story that takes place in Vienna), ultimately it is the weakness of the frame that causes the last scene to be disappointing. The over-advertised Samuel L. Jackson heads the last scene in Canada, in which he plays an instrument expert. After appraising the instrument and verifying its identity as the historically famous “Red Violin,” he must part with the most perfect instrument he will ever see and leave it to be auctioned off to those who cannot ever understand its value.

Girard fills the film with tantalizing foreshadowing elements that make the last scene satisfying on the surface, but, when put in relation to the rest of the film, simply fail to provide satisfactory closure. The segment containing the auction and the fortune-teller limits the possibilities of the ending, and it is a mystery why the film ultimately implies that the story of The Red Violin is ended.

Despite the slightly flawed ending, the film is noteworthy in its ability to successfully engage the audience with its unconventional storytelling. Add a highly memorable score by John Corigliano (played by the excellent Joshua Bell) and creative cinematography, and The Red Violin is a beautiful alternative to the mundane and mindless summer fare.