Balancing artistic pizazz and audience appeal is a tough trick to turn, one the filmmakers of "The Matrix" came closer to than most in recent years. In "The Red Violin," this balancing act fails, and a potentially solid film sways lopsided as a result.
Director François Girard and co-writer Don McKeller (who also appears in the film as stock character "tech-geek" Evan Williams) had an intriguing concept and visual approach.
The film is anchored in a modern setting at an auction in Montreal, from which five flashbacks scope time and geography starting from 17th-century Italy.
A red violin and a Tarot card reading are central to the movie. The card dictates the future of the violin.
The Tarot cards are even able to predict who will encounter the instrument and the outcome of their interaction with the violin.
Although the flash-forwards to Montreal are a bit repetitive (and draw a few frustrating groans from the audience), the story line in general is very intriguing.
The way the violin personifies the soul of a woman jives with anyone who has ever been emotionally charged, or broken, by a piece of music.
Visually the film is successful, shot effectively and with persistence by Alain Doste, who previously teamed up with Girard on "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" in 1993. The camera often picks up on melodies of original music composed by John Corigliano, music that at times seems to draw a similar response from the camera as that of an enamored individual that can't keep still as they listen.
And like any good camera should, it is constantly in search of beautiful landscapes to frame--full moons and snow-capped mountains run throughout the film.
But the film goes wrong with its approach to Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), a first class instrument evaluator.
Morritz is seduced by the identity of the violin and secretively unearths its mysteries. Jackson sufficiently portrays this character. But in an attempt to add humor and wit, and commercial appeal, the filmmakers copied Jackson's character from "Pulp Fiction" into the story line.
This results in dissonance that creates enormously awkward moments in the film.
An episode when Jackson hypocritically berates a hotel clerk for doing what he instructed her to do, shooting off one liners, reveals the ridiculousness and immaturity of the displacement.
This aspect of the character's personality doesn't belong in the film and gets stuck in its cinematic gears. Clearly, the risk was taken with the hopes that Jackson's name would increase the number of movie-goers.
The balance between artistic film and mass-audience potential is a very tricky one, as Girard will discover the hard way.
The film is closer to being worth seven bucks than most Hollywood assembly line productions these days. So take the criticism with a grain of salt--critics only improve art.
Amid many films that don't deserve a second glance or a focused thought, "The Red Violin" should be critiqued by taking at least the first step--watching it.