Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Red Violin

By Marc Savlov

JUNE 28, 1999: 

D: Francois Girard; with Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Carlo Cecchi, Irene Grazioli, Jean-Luc Bideau, Christoph Koncz, Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore. (Not Rated, 130 min.)

Pardon me, Mr. Jackson, but what the fuck are you doing? Hopefully, a deuce of muddled roles -- first as Star Wars' Jedi Master Mace Windu, a bland, blasé role delivered with enough wood onboard to restock much of our depleted Amazonian forestation, and now this cipheresque anti-role -- does not signify some actorly trauma of the sort that devours careers whole, Kangol and all. It's disconcerting to watch one of this century's most forceful screen presences cinematically stumble twice in the space of a month, much more so than watching him pump hot lead into teenage drugboys while reciting applicable scripture, certainly. Still, there's no denying the fact that Jackson is woefully miscast here, and as a result spends much of his time struggling to define his role as a "serious" collector of objets d'art in this muddled-though-gorgeous omnibus film. Girard, who also helmed the superior Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, is apparently indulging his cultural palette with this multi-storied tale of a legendary red violin and those doomed persons who manage to get their hands on it. Wrapped in a cloying, house-of-cards framework set at a modern-day art auction where Jackson is but one of many representatives of the power elite vying for a chance to own the blood-red relic, the film is strung together on a washline of improbabilities and just hangs there, flapping in a crisp, cinematographically enhanced breeze. Besides the framing device, there's the history of the violin, constructed in old Cremona by a perfectionist named Nicolo Bussotti for his unborn son. When the boy and his mother perish during childbirth, Bussotti embarks on a secretive redesign of a perfect, final instrument, which later falls into the hands of a group of monks and from there to a child prodigy, a band of Gypsies, a Victorian bon-vivant-cum-composer, and a young female Communist official struggling to bury her humanity during China's Cultural Revolution. And so on. Flemyng, as the Victorian violinist Frederick Pope, clearly has a ball getting it on with both the instrument in question and jealous lover Greta Scacchi (simultaneously, I might add, an impressive feat by anyone's standards), and Chang as the downtrodden officiate Xiang Pei brings a note of dour consequence to the proceedings, but that's it, really. Not all is lost, though. An impressively evocative score by composer John Corigliano almost saves the day single-handedly (one assumes the other digits are furiously clutching a bow), and cinematographer Alain Dostie isn't afraid to get right down in the Viennese cobbles and render unto Botticelli what is Botticelli's. And Cecchi, admittedly, holds our attention as the forlorn, quite possibly mad, Bussotti. But, really, what's the point of all this tortured excess? Viewers may be lulled into a faux affection for Girard's lush, operatically vulcanized film by fearing that otherwise they might be seen as culturally déclassé. Pay no mind. Purchase Corigliano's score, but don't feel you need the film to savor it. And would somebody please get Mr. Jackson a gun already?

2.0 stars

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