The multiple-story film has been traced back as far as D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance, but variations on it, such as interwoven stories (Dead of Night) and parallel stories (The Double Life of Veronique) have proved popular among filmmakers. An interesting variation is the 'hand-me-down' story, in which an object, such as a coat (Tales of Manhattan) or a car (The Yellow Rolls Royce), is passed along and the story of its various owners unfolds.

In Fran‡ois Girard's visually arresting film, The Red Violin, the handed-down object is a legendary violin famous for its reddish color and its colorful history dating back to 17th-century Italy. Whether in Italy, in the court of imperial Vienna during the 1790s, in Victorian England, or in China in the 1960s, this rare musical instrument seems to cast a spell on those who would possess it--a spell that could be a blessing or a curse.

A wrap-around story, set at an upmarket auction in present-day Montreal, establishes that, for all its checkered past, the red violin is a fabled object of desire that bridges the space between everyday life and the transcendence of art. That would appear to be the reason a mysterious violin expert, played by Samuel L. Jackson, wants to bid for the fabled instrument, seemingly at all costs.

Director Girard and screenwriter Don McKellar collaborated on the 1993 art-house hit Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a quirky, even obsessive tribute to the late, idiosyncratic concert pianist. There's something obsessive, too, about The Red Violin's narrative, which careers through three centuries, slowing down for a tarot card reading in Lombardy, a bizarre sexual dalliance in Oxford, and a denunciation of 'empty formalism' in the People's Republic of China during the mid-1960s. That red violin certainly does get around.

In an omnibus film like this, actors have limited opportunities to make an impact, but Jackson walks off with the movie's last half-hour, generating some real tension as to what this high-powered stranger really wants. In contrast, Jason Flemyng as classical violinist Frederick Pope and Greta Scacchi as Victoria, his paramour, get to 'play' each other's naked bodies like stringed instruments. In a hand-me-down movie, they might have fared better with some hand-me-down clothes.

The Red Violin benefits greatly from a distinguished score by contemporary composer John Corigliano, best known previously for his opera The Ghosts of Versailles. But a good score can only do so much and, too often here, it is undercut by an overly sentimental story, the kind of tale in which a child prodigy dies and is buried with his violin. 'He can play it in heaven,' a monk observes, without a trace of irony.

--Ed Kelleher