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With its all-encompassing fusion of sound and light, cinema aspires to conjure a state of rapt transcendence—not unlike the highest enjoyment of music and sex, the themes of two strikingly ambitious, if slightly ridiculous, new films. Ironically, The Red Violin and The Loss of Sexual Innocence owe most of their power to cinema rather than to their overwrought scenarios. Both films are more interesting to watch than they are to ponder.
Shattered and strewn across four centuries, the story of director and co-writer Francois Girard’s The Red Violin is an elaborate puzzle. Yet the film is not so challenging or unexpected as the director’s previous work, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Whereas that movie offered a prismatic view of a complicated, elusive genius, this one is about an instrument—or should I say a device? The titular violin connects five stories, thus, well, connecting five stories. The film doesn’t illuminate anything other than its own structure. Still, this is a skillful, entertaining, and beautifully photographed example of multitrack storytelling, all the more remarkable for having been made for a paltry $9 million.
The movie opens in 17th-century Cremona, which really was the center of violin-making at the time, and ends in Girard’s hometown, Montreal, which isn’t quite the center of the civilized world depicted here. (The contemporary sequences are so sleekly self-important that at first I thought they were taking place in Paris.) In Italy, master craftsman Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) makes a new violin as his wife Anna (Irene Grazioli) waits to give birth. The two acts of creation overlap, not least in the mind of the old woman (Anita Laurenzi) who reads with Tarot cards the fortune of the violin-maker’s wife. The young woman dies, but the violin lives numerous lives.
The old woman has discerned a curse in the Tarot-cast fortune, but is it on Anna or the instrument? The violin next appears in the hands of a delicate young prodigy, Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz), in an Austrian orphanage. Kaspar is adopted by impresario Georges Poussin (Jean-Luc Bideau), who takes him to Vienna for an audition that proves literally disastrous. After a brief sojourn with some Gypsies, the violin becomes the property of opium-smoking Victorian genius Frederick Pope (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels’ Jason Flemyng), a Paganini type who’s devastated when his novelist lover, Victoria (Greta Scacchi), heads to Russia for inspiration. In the next century, the violin arrives in Shanghai, where a young Maoist with a hidden passion for Western music, Xiang Pei (Sylvia Chang), must hide it during the Cultural Revolution.
By the time the instrument turns up in contemporary Montreal, it’s become Bussotti’s legendary “red violin.” Or at least that’s the suspicion of expert Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), who begins investigating the violin with the help of Evan Williams (Don McKellar, who co-wrote both this film and Glenn Gould). The crucial auction attracts the attention of the descendants (literal or spiritual) of the violin’s previous owners and provides the film’s narrative frame: The event is portrayed repeatedly, each time from a slightly different viewpoint. If the contemporary sequence is supposed to add thrills, however, it fails: The violin’s terrible secret is rather obvious—you could probably guess it without even seeing the film—and the instrument’s ultimate fate is no shocker, either.
The Red Violin doesn’t serve music the way Glenn Gould did, but music is vital to it. Noted neo-trad composer John Corigliano’s score, performed by virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell and the London Philharmonia Orchestra, knits the episodes together and gives some sense of the aesthetic mystery the movie means to celebrate. When the film is at its silliest, though, it’s clear why Frederick Pope needed opium as well as music to achieve the sort of romantic delirium Girard imagines he can effect with a single violin.
The most absurd moment in The Red Violin comes when Frederick and Victoria use his violin playing as a form of foreplay, but that scene’s hothouse eroticism has nothing on Mike Figgis’ The Loss of Sexual Innocence. Having gotten away (more or less) with a film that glorifies drinking yourself to death in the company of an obliging hooker (Leaving Las Vegas) and another that extols adultery as truer than marriage (One Night Stand), the writer-director has now conceived an erogenous fugue that’s part voluptuous parable, part rueful autobiography. It’s the sort of arty self-indulgence that probably wouldn’t get a commercial release if it didn’t feature much picturesque nudity.
Although most of the action takes place during the life of filmmaker Nic (played as an adult by Figgis regular Julian Sands), this film is no less fragmentary than The Red Violin. Three actors play Nic as a boy, from a 5-year-old voyeur in Kenya (where Figgis spent his early childhood), to a 12-year-old tormented by his gym teacher for being overweight, to a 16-year-old (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) frustrated in his attempts to slip his fingers inside the clothing of his girlfriend, Susan (Kelly MacDonald). That the various Nics don’t closely resemble each other is puzzling, but confusion is apparently part of Figgis’ plan. Among the other characters are the twins (Saffron Burrows), two women separated at birth and brought together just long enough to have a startling but inconclusive epiphany at the Rome airport.
The central story, such as it is, concerns Nic’s attempts to have sex with various women and perhaps make some sort of film in Tunisia. In addition to Susan, Nic’s prospective bed partners include his sullen but willing wife (Johanna Torrel) and one of the twins, whose roll in the sand with the filmmaker leads indirectly but unmistakably to a brutal killing. Sexual jealousy = death, apparently, or at least is a major drag.
This moral is clouded, however, by the film’s other major narrative strand, a stylized, wordless visualization of the parable of Adam and Eve. The first man and woman (Femi Ogumbanjo and Hanne Klintoe) surface fully formed from an idyllic lake and discover that they’re different from each other. (For reasons that are important to Figgis but otherwise obscure, Adam is black and Eve is “Nordic white.”) They learn how to urinate, eat some fruit, meet a snake, and screw, and then are hounded from the garden, which turns out to be in Rome. Forced into the street by men who from their uniforms would seem to be working for Mussolini rather than God, the couple is photographed by frenzied paparazzi.
That may not be the most sympathetic synopsis possible, but it would be hard to summarize The Loss of Sexual Innocence without making it sound ridiculous. (In fact, there are many other brief sequences that are at least as barmy as the ones mentioned.) At times, Figgis’ style recalls such noted ’60s art-film directors as Fellini, Bunuel, and Antonioni, but more often it suggests soft-centered ’90s Euro-fabulists like Krzysztof Kieslowski and Julio Medem.
Like much of those directors’ work, The Loss of Sexual Innocence looks smarter than it plays. Shot on 16 mm by versatile French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (Cyclo, The Winslow Boy), the film is strikingly composed and pictorially lush. Even when inexplicable or overreaching, it’s always watchable—although the soundtrack would have benefited from more witty Sandie Shaw and less wispy Beethoven and Chopin. The movie will torment any literal-minded viewers who encounter it, but filmgoers with more imagination might enjoyably envision the uses to which these vivid images might be put if only they could be freed from Figgis’ private sexual agenda.
It certainly wouldn’t occur to anyone to send Oscar Wilde to prison after seeing the new film of his 1895 play, An Ideal Husband, which director Oliver Parker has streamlined into a sparkling moral tale. Indeed, the story’s central character, Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), is a Wilde surrogate who utters tart witticisms while he self-sacrificingly risks his reputation to save his friend’s. This is Wilde as the last drawing-room hero.
Part of the plot, which turns on a “youthful indiscretion” of the otherwise admirable politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), seems rather contemporary—a quality Parker emphasizes. (“Information is the modern commodity,” one of the story’s minor characters informs us.) As the story unfolds, however, its Victorianism becomes manifest. It will make perfect sense to the 1990s viewer that Chiltern would not want the villainous Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) to reveal that he once sold inside government information to an Austrian financier—a transgression she threatens to disclose if he doesn’t endorse a canal project in which she’s invested. We’re back in the 1890s, however, when Chiltern’s upright wife, Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), fears that her standing will be muddied if anyone discovers that she, concerned about her husband, has dared to visit his best friend, Goring, unchaperoned. That Gertrude’s imagined offense might trump her husband’s real one is essential to the plot complications, which accept a now-incomprehensible moral equivalence between graft and a married woman speaking privately to a unmarried man.
Tidy as it is, An Ideal Husband can hardly leave its ideal man a bachelor. When not trading barbs with Cheveley, Goring flirts archly with Chiltern’s spirited (if otherwise characterless) sister Mabel (Minnie Driver), who is obviously his soulmate. At the height of the comic confusion, Chiltern must think Goring has strayed with Gertrude, while Mabel assumes that Goring has agreed to marry Cheveley. Such misunderstandings will be undone, of course, and whatever innocence is lost in these machinations is not sexual.
Actor-turned-director Parker, who previously slenderized Othello, has crafted a pleasant if not especially pungent entertainment. Although the result is a little bland, some of the fault is certainly Wilde’s; the director’s neatening doesn’t violate one of the playwright’s more profound works. Aside from some Wildean epigrams that even those unfamiliar with the play will probably recognize, the film’s principal asset is the acting, especially that of Everett, who gives Goring’s blithe banter an underlying melancholy, and Blanchett, who subtly conveys Gertrude’s tension between love and principle. Parker has opened up the play, even staging some scenes outside, but the dialogue dominates the story. Forget the earnest moral—An Ideal Husband is still about the importance of being witty. CP