"The Red Violin," French-Canadian director Françios Girard's highly anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993), looks and feels like a multicultural art-house production of the highest order. It sounds like one, too, thanks to violinist Joshua Bell's magnificent work on a captivating score by American composer John Corigliano.
Tracing the journey of the titular instrument across three continents in as many centuries, the action is bolstered by lavish costumes, awe-inspiring natural backdrops and set pieces, and an international cast that spews dialogue in five languages. And the tale is cleverly told, anthology-style, with a modern-day auction of its wooden main character acting as a framing sequence that links the story's various movements.
But as Charlie once said about tuna, just because it has good taste doesn't mean it tastes good.
"The Red Violin" is as ambitious and grandiose as the genre demands, but sorely lacking in storytelling magic. The individual strands of this omnibus portrait are simply not that compelling, the acting is stilted, and the word play is too often soaked in syrup. Clichés abound in a feature that seems more suited to pay-cable than the big screen.
A prime example of the film's wrongheadedness arrives near its midpoint. Coming on like a rock star, the brilliant, long-haired English violinist Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) brings his fans to aural ecstasy in between passionate off-stage trysts with his lover, Victoria (Greta Scacchi). Amid too much talk about inspiring each other's creative passions (she's a writer), a nude Victoria finds time to grope her beloved as he plays. Harlequin couldn't have done it better.
The other stories are told with the greatest of solemnity, including that of fictional 17th-century Italian craftsman Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), who fashions the violin as a gift for his unborn son. The instrument later passes through the hands of a child prodigy, a band of gypsies, Pope and a pair of Chinese communists caught up in the cultural revolution -- all before it ends up with modern-day expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), who doggedly investigates the origin of its beautiful sound and strange, reddish hue.
"This is the single most perfect machine I have ever seen," a co-worker declares. "Amazing."
If only the rest of "The Red Violin" were as convincing as Morritz's passionate quest to authenticate his discovery.