The so-called portmanteau film — a collection of stories in a single vessel — is by its very nature a tricky proposition. Even the best of them — Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan, the multi-director Dead of Night — rises and falls on the quality of the individual episodes. Duvivier’s film, for example, soars in its Edward G. Robinson sequence, and again in its Paul Robeson/Ethel Waters vignette, but plummets somewhere beneath sea level in the story with Ginger Rogers and Henry Fonda.
French-Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard and co-screenwriter Don McKellar mostly circumvent this problem in the 1998 film, The Red Violin. It’s not simply that there’s no actual clunker of a story in the film’s mix (there isn’t), it’s more that they fashioned not one, but two brilliantly conceived and executed framing stories to tie the whole thing together. And it’s a good thing they did, because this may be the most ambitious portmanteau film ever made, as it traces some 300 years in the “life” of the Red Violin.
The film starts off rather simply in this regard, interrupting the basic story of the violin’s creation in 1680s Cremona by Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi, Stealing Beauty) with its appearance as the star item in a Montreal auction. Then it returns to Cremona and sets up the film’s second framing story, as Bussotti’s pregnant wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli, Mediterraneo), has her Tarot cards read by a family servant, Cesca (Anita Laurenzi, The Sicilian). Alarmed by the reading — which we don’t witness — she goes to her husband, who tries to allay her fears of dying in childbirth by showing her the “perfect” violin he has crafted for their unborn son.
And so the story proper starts, following the violin from Cremona to Vienna to Gypsies to England to China and finally to Montreal. The story lines, while having little direct connection to historical events, are obviously grounded in musical and artistic legend.
The character of English violinist Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is clearly a composite of the violin virtuoso Paganini and several other over-the-top Romantic composers of the 19th Century (Franz Liszt comes to mind). Similarly, the fate of the violin, after the beautifully somber Vienna episode, smacks suspiciously of being the work of someone well-versed in the physical history of the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti — which makes a good bridge between the 18th and 19th centuries.
The stories otherwise have the feel of genuine musical legend. All the stories are good, though there’s the expected uneven nature of this kind of assemblage, not to mention the occasional hint of being done in a kind of shorthand in order to keep the episodes a tractable length.
The Pope story, for example, while good enough on its own terms, feels a little rushed. It sometimes seems more a series of clever tableaux than a real story, but that might also be due to the basic overripe nature of the excesses endemic to the Romantic movement that the episode attempts to encapsulate.
What keeps the various balls in mid-air throughout the movie are the framing stories and the growing realization (through one of them) that the violin itself is possessed of a human spirit. The auction story is both effective and amazingly bold in its design. The film returns to it between each episode, but as it does so, it moves the auction story back a notch, so that we see the same action twice — the second time with new information and characters, which only make sense in light of the individual tales. At first, this is jarring; but then the pattern becomes clear and it turns into something clever. Amazingly enough, the mere cleverness gives way to a genuinely intriguing story of its own that we’re anxious to see played out.
Perhaps this sounds more complicated than it actually is. I should note that no aspect of the film is in any way hard to follow. If anything, a little more ambiguity might have been a little better, because as it stands, The Red Violin is almost too mathematically precise to seem as human as it might have been.
Girard largely compensates for this by infusing the film with breathtaking images of great romantic — and Romantic — beauty. It’s the sort of visual splendor that is all too lacking in many recent films, and this six-year-old film is a stinging reminder of that fact. The entire film is enveloped in an equally glorious musical score (one that effectively depicts the various eras) by noted American composer John Corigliano, who is probably best known to film fans for his score on Altered States, making for a singularly rich experience.
If you’ve never seen The Red Violin, you should, and if you have, you should consider seeing it again, but don’t wait too long as it will only be playing to limited seating through next week.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke