By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 18, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The world’s most famous fiddles can’t match the exotic provenance of the star of The Red Violin, a fictional, 300-year-old musical instrument that makes its way through history, from Italy to China, ending up under the scrutiny of Samuel L. Jackson as an expert at a modern auction. Everyone who touches it, of course, has a baroquely tragic story to tell. But the most satisfying aspect of this odd, piquant tale — so calmly Canadian despite its hot gusts of romanticism — is the complex ”structure” of the work.

François Girard, who made the starkly brilliant 1993 biographical fantasy Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, once again collaborates with versatile Don McKellar to incorporate aspects of musical composition — theme, variation, exposition, recapitulation — into the film’s architecture. Girard’s innovative translation of the musical experience through the storytelling possibilities of a visual medium (aided by a haunting score by John Corigliano) is engaging even when the individual movements droop from the weight of costume-drama finery.

Now, as for what big-time badass Jackson is doing fondling a fiddle and talking about wood varnish in an artsy Canadian project, I think the answer is, anything he wants. B