Deja Vu

First, we go to Cremona, where master violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) is putting the finishing touches on the instrument. His pregnant wife visits a tarot reader, who foretells a grim, exciting and impossibly incident-filled fate for the young woman.

A hundred years later, the violin turns up in an Austrian monastery, where master music teacher Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau) discovers a dazzling 6-year-old prodigy (Christoph Koncz). Another 100 years pass before the instrument makes it way into the hands of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a famous virtuoso/composer who is the classical equivalent of a pop star. And 70 years later, it shows up in Shanghai, where its presence threatens to bring the wrath of the Cultural Revolution down on its owner (Sylvia Chang).

In all these stories, the violin is the catalyst for catastrophe -- it seems to carry a curse, as repeated flashbacks to the tarot reading emphasize. Finally we are brought back to the weeks before the auction, where we follow Morritz's discovery of the violin and his eventual unraveling of its secret.

The Red Violin arrives here on the strength of both its cast and the success of director/co-writer François Girard's last effort, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The two films have more in common than their musical subject matter; Glenn Gould was another fragmented narrative, presenting brief elliptical sketches in hopes of capturing at least some notion of the eccentric pianist.

The earlier film was like a postmodern or cubist portrait of its subject. The Red Violin is far less daring. The sum of its parts may constitute a mystery and a solution, but it's a completely fictional and arbitrary one. Without the contrast of a real-life focus, the movie is more abstract: We are inevitably faced with the question of why we should be interested in this make-believe object and its history.

The obvious answer is that storytelling is its own reward; an engaging narrative needs no other justification. But the narrative better be engaging if the entire exercise is to have any aesthetic purpose; in the case of The Red Violin, thecontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagefilmmakers just barely squeak by. Girard has mounted a handsome production, featuring several first-rate actors. (Either an uncredited Minnie Driver or her double shows up in a cameo as a gypsy.) He wisely obtained composer John Corigliano and violinist Joshua Bell to contribute to the score.

But, that said, I suspect the film's texture and structure are more the result of the current state of film financing than of any inherent thematic needs. The Red Violin reeks of the International Co-production Syndrome: The settings are determined by the needs of the entities putting up the money. Officially this is a Canadian/Italian co-production, but it was also funded by New Line, England's Channel Four and the Vienna Film Financing Fund. (Somewhere in the background, there just has to have been Chinese participation as well.)

As a result, The Red Violin's mandated narrative is carried more by stylistic and structural tricks than by much of a plot. With so much leaping around in time and such a speedy resolution to each individual segment, it's unlikely that anyone will be bored. But it's just as unlikely that anyone will be swept off their feet, either.

Opens June 18 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

Devil's Island
Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson

Set in 1950s Reykjavik, where a variety of odd, underprivileged Icelanders have set up housekeeping in the metal huts of Camp Thule, an abandoned U.S. Army barracks, Devil's Island is a human comedy with a bitter streak, a Finnish Graffiti flavored by a nostalgia that's turned sour. Watching it is somewhat like listening to someone who thinks he's giving a sentimental account of his family history but can't help dwelling on Uncle Barney's adultery or Cousin Betty's drinking problem. Director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, whose earlier Children of Nature (1991) and Cold Fever (1995) are probably the only other Icelandic films ever to receive American distribution, shows affection for his sad, odd figures who populate his cold setting but allows his perspective to waver from sympathy to ridicule.

The film begins at the wedding of an Icelandic woman and an American GI -- a heavy-handed symbol of the United States' cultural influence on postwar Europe -- but the remainder focuses on the family the America-bound bride leaves behind, including two adult sons, Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur) and Danni (Sveinn Geirsson). After a few brief episodes involving the rest of the family (an ineffectual grandfather and his fortune-telling wife) and their neighbors (an abusive alcoholic briefly persuaded to relive his past athletic glories), the story settles on the troubles of the loutish Baddi (my unfamiliarity with Finnish names prevents me from determining whether the name is a description of his character or merely a coincidence, but I suspect the former), who returns from a visit to his mother thoroughly corrupted by American culture, complete with car, TV, teddy-boy wardrobe and a new set of physical and verbal mannerisms borrowed from James Dean and Elvis (who he proudly declares is "the only man I respect"). Dissatisfied with all things Icelandic, Baddi settles into a comfortable reign of terror based on bullying, threats and weekend revels with his good-for-nothing friends; is briefly put in his place by the achievements of moody younger brother Danni; and is finally left to face an ambiguous but unpromising future.

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