The Saddest Music in the World
Directed by Guy Maddin. Starring Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, Ross McMillan, David Fox. (2003, NR, 99 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 4, 2004
Canadian director Guy Maddin is one of the most unusual and distinctive filmmakers in the world. His movies defy comparison and resist ordinary explanation. He is at once an avant-gardist and an antiquarian, if such a combination is indeed possible. With The Saddest Music in the World, Maddin has now delivered his most accomplished and accessible film, yet I can guarantee it looks and sounds like nothing you’ve ever seen before (except, perhaps, another Guy Maddin film). Although the movie is a semimusical set in Maddin’s home town of Winnipeg during the Depression, Maddin doesn’t re-create the appearance of a Depression-era musical so much as he uses several of the techniques and visual touchstones of the era to invent a universe that is his alone. Maddin’s world is expressionistic, and he employs anachronistic techniques (i.e., gauzy black-and-white imagery that is occasionally pumped up with shocks of color tinting). Saddest Music has none of the ice nymphs and other weird creatures that have populated Maddin’s previous films. In fact, this time he has attracted a couple of international stars, Isabella Rossellini and Maria de Medeiros, to his Winnipeg haunts. Their inclusion doesn’t make this film any less weird than usual, but Maddin’s expressionistic style is grounded with greater realism and familiarity (even if that familiarity sometimes derives from our overall knowledge of the Thirties). Rossellini plays Winnipeg beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntly, who at the beginning of the film announces a contest to find the world’s saddest music. She offers a prize of $25,000 to whomever can perform the saddest tune, in the belief that the more melancholy the population, the more beer they will drink. "If you're sad and you like beer, I'm your woman," she declares. Musicians flock from around the globe, lending the film some of its exotic charm, as Inuits, Mexicans, Indian dancing girls, and Serbs all huddle together waiting for their turn to perform. They’re eliminated by a loud gong and made to slide down a chute into a big vat of beer. Color commentators offer amusing asides on the competition. The fiercest competitor is Chester Kent (former Kid in the Hall McKinney), a slicked-up Broadway producer and faux American, who long ago had an affair with Lady Port-Huntly and was partly responsible for the accident that caused both her legs to be amputated. Of course, Chester was two-timing his dad, who was also involved with Lady Port-Huntly – an Oedipal setup that comes round again in the film’s latter half when Chester’s brother Roderick (McMillan), a virtuoso cellist, appears. There are also the amnesiac Narcissa (de Madeiros, best known for her role as Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) and the prosthetic glass legs filled with beer that delight Lady Port-Huntly as central motifs that dapple the story. For all its courting of melancholy, The Saddest Music in the World is also a very funny movie, casting satiric barbs at Canadians and Americans and graced with an array of witty one-liners. The movie occasionally continues on too long with certain scenes and may strain the sensibilities of anybody not caught up in its delirious visuals and melodrama, but The Saddest Music in the World nevertheless beckons with a seductive and unforgettable melody.