Saddest Music in the World, The (Canada; 99 min.)

directed by: Guy Maddin
starring: Isabella Rossellini; Mark McKinney; Maria de Medeiros
The Saddest Music in the World
Bruce says: "This film is wildly innovative and original, a stunning success creatively speaking. It is unique. Filmed in fuzzy sepia and silver tones for the most part, the film lapses into moments of strange color, the returns to the neutral shades indicative of 1933 the year it takes place.

"The setting is Winnipeg, the world capitol of sorrow in the Great Depression. As the film opens, a gypsy tells Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) to put his hands on a slab of ice and look into his soul. Chester is more interested in what his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) is doing with her hands in his pocket. Inattention may be Chester’s undoing.

"Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) is offering $25,000 to the country that can create the saddest music. The contest is run as though it were a sporting event, pitting two contestants at a time, the winner(s) advancing to the next round after sliding into a huge vat for a victory bath of beer. Lady Port-Huntly oversees the competition with a joyous cunning, ruthlessly dismissing the loser as she gives her 'thumbs up' to the winner of the round. During the competition we are treated to standoffs between Siam and Mexico; Spain and America; Serbia and Scotland; and Canada and Africa. (You didn’t know Africa was a country until now, did you?) The musical numbers are eclectic, featuring strange combinations of styles and rhythms. Some are Berkleyesque and almost all the competitions feature one country being musically aggressive towards the other.

"Before the contest begins, Chester has to sweet talk his way into being a contestant. That isn’t very difficult as it turns out. Lady Port-Huntly was madly in love with him at the time she was having an affair with his father and her legs were amputated as a result of a drunken accident. Before Chester is given the green light, Lady Port-Huntly warns him that idealism and business rarely mix.

"So Chester will represent America; his father (David Fox) is representing Canada; his brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), Serbia. There is an abundance of hostility, guilt, and sibling rivalry in this dysfunctional family. The now sober father tries to make amends to Lady Port-Huntly by fashioning glass legs filled with beer for her to wear. Believe me, those legs are a sight to behold.

"Chester pummels, bribes and bamboozles his way to the finals easily showing that America can easily bully any other country or continent. His brother is fighting his way to the finals driven by the sorrows over his dying son and his missing wife plus his anger that his private grief has been turned into a carnival peep show.

"The bad news is that there are major flaws amidst all this fun. The subplot involving the two brothers is flimsy. It might have worked if the family behaved less like Keystone cops and more like regular humans. But ultimately it is the performances of Ross McMillan and Maria de Medeiros which make the film implode. I think they are supposed to be imitating silent screen stars; whatever they’re up to, it just doesn’t work. Were Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney not so perfect, we might not have noticed. 4 cats"

Chris says: "An amputated-below-the-waist, tiara-wearing beer baroness… an ex-alcoholic who can only play an upright piano when pushed over on its side as he kneels down before it… a contest structured not unlike a boxing match which ejects each round’s winners down a voluminous slide into a giant vat of rich, delicious lager… with all this inspired, surreal madness (and Winnipeg as its beloved epicenter), it has to be a Guy Maddin film.

"Set in snowy, Great Depression-era depths, The Saddest Music in the World is both an affectionate tribute to and a revisionist take on period melodramas and musicals, not to mention a wry social satire of patriotic rivalries. Faced with sagging sales, that beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) comes up with an ingenuous promotion: Since Winnipeg has just been voted the World Capital of Sorrow, why not cash in with a global competition to determine who can perform for her the weepiest tear-jerker on Earth, with a generous prize of $25,000? In addition to groups as disparate as Burmese funeral marchers and a Mexican Mariachi band, the contestants include slick-talking, failed Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), an ex-lover of Port-Huntley’s; Fyodor (David Fox), the ex-alcoholic mentioned above who is not only Chester’s father, but also the man chiefly responsible for Port-Huntley’s untimely, embarrassing loss of legs; and Roderick (Ross McMillan), Chester’s even more tortured older brother, a Serbian refugee torn apart by his wife’s abandonment of him and his young son’s death (he tenderly carries the latter’s heart with him in a mason jar).

"Also playing a crucial part in this fable is Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester’s exotic, amnesiac muse. With plainspoken directness, she argues, 'I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac!' A performing puppet to Chester’s Svengali, she’s only one of his cunning strategies to win the contest. However, his master plan veers wildly off course as Roderick claims Narcissa to be his long-lost wife and Fyodor crafts some most unusual replacement legs for Lady Port-Huntley. Tension between the brothers comes to a foamy head as the competition heats up to a nail-biting, literally fiery finale.

"While made with a more lavish ($3.5 million) budget and (in Maddin’s words) 'real movie stars,' the film snuggly fits into the Canadian experimentalist’s canon. Its dark-verging-on-grotesque droll undercurrents go all the way back to his first feature, TALES FROM GIMLI HOSPITAL (1988). Its mostly black-and-white, deliberately antiquated tableaux borrowed from that key cinematic era when silent film transitioned to sound is reminiscent of films like ARCHANGEL (1990). Isolated scenes (like a delirious, pancultural rendition of 'California, Here We Come' at the film’s climax) were shot in the two-strip 'Melancolour” of CAREFUL (1992). And the editing rhythms are occasionally as frenzied as those in the densely-packed six minute short THE HEART OF THE WORLD (2000) and the opulent balletic dream that is DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY (2002).

In the year preceding the film’s American release, The Village Voice published installments of Maddin’s production diary. Alongside a phantasmagorical account of “descending into Rossellini’s mouth” with his camera (where he claims to find some ballet slippers way in the back, presumably from White Nights?) and the usual neuroses that surface with any independent film production, Maddin writes, “I want to unlearn how to watch movies, I want to flip dyslexically the images of my film to jangle their readability for the viewers. I want to re-create the thrill I felt as a boy when I finally recognized three words in a row!”

Although Maddin works with a larger canvas than ever before, The Saddest Music in the World is by no means a bow to the mainstream. However, it’s arguably the first effort where his narrative proficiency finally matches his inimitable, imaginative style. As weird and otherworldly as films like Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) were, they occasionally felt a little too quirky and stilted for their own good. While still unapologetically silly, this film has a wallop of an emotional impact. You can see it in some of Maddin’s visual schemes: those brief, scattered moments when the film suddenly switches from black-and-white to color are as immediate as your first viewing of The Wizard of Oz for the transitions alone. While eccentric, though, his characters feel more developed and personable than ever before. Even as Rosselini plays out an iconic, Marlene Deitrich-worthy fantasy as Lady Port-Huntley, when she receives and tries out the new “legs” given to her by Fyodor, her delight and gratification over such a ridiculous but heartfelt gift is unexpectedly poignant--as appropriate and intoxicating as the liquid sloshing around inside those legs."

Diane says: "I really didn't like this. Maybe it's a great movie, but not to my taste (like MULHOLLAND DR.). I found the b/w photography with blurred edges unpleasant to watch, and the story uninteresting. (Now I remember that I saw director Guy Maddin's THE HEART OF THE WORLD short at Toronto in a similar style.) It did feel very edgy, like BLUE VELVET was, also starring Rossellini--what a coincidence!

"The actual contest felt like I was at the Lowell Folk Festival: thirty seconds of mariachi, thirty seconds of oompah band.... I did have quite a few laughs.

"The Rosselini character endeared herself to me when she was standing on her glass legs, swishing her short skirt fringed with beads, and said delightedly, 'I wish I could feel my skirt!' It reminded me of a similarly endearing character: Bruce Willis' girlfriend in PULP FICTION who wanted blueberry pancakes and a paunch like Madonna. Maria de Medeiros, also starring in SADDEST --what a coincidence! 1 cat."

Hilary says: "I'm with you, Diane. I got it but I didn't care -- I definitely appreciated this one far more than I enjoyed it."

Michael says: "Guy Maddin is a unique filmmaker. He masterfully combines an eye for the absurd, with an artistic vision that harkens to the early days of cinema, Maddin creates dreamy films that treat the bizarre as ordinary. His latest, much-touted opus, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD lived up to my expectations with the hilarious assistance of Isabella Rossellini and Maria de Medeiros (last seen in MY LIFE WITHOUT ME... has she moved to Canada?)

Based, surprisingly enough, on a screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, Maddin's MUSIC takes place in 1933 Winnipeg, where Rossellini plays beer mogul Lady Port-Huntley, whose plan to hold a contest to find the saddest music in the world to promote her beer kicks off the film. Port-Huntley lost her legs in a tragic accident involving Chester and his father. Now, over a decade later Chester enters the contest representing America, and his father enters representing Canada. To muddy the water even more, Chester's estranged brother Roderick enters the contest representing Serbia, where he has been living for years. Roderick's life has been filled with tragedy,
including a dead son and a missing wife, while Chester doesn't believe in sadness... just opportunity. Their father mourns his widow, as well as his part in the tragedy that caused Lady Port-Huntley to lose her legs. Who will win out?

There are plenty of twists and revelations to emerge before the winner is announced, along with some terrific images (Rossellini perched on glass legs filled with beer is a real winner). The music performed by musicians from around the world is powerful, even as it's presented in the wacky contest scenario. De Medeiros' gentle voice and flapper looks add a fragility to her kooky character's performance, and her resolution is moving. There are so many parts of this film that I could comment on, instead I just urge you to go see it! Boston folks don't have much time (The Kendall is inexplicably running it for a single week!)

If you liked last year's Buried Treasure nominee DRACULA: PAGES OF A VIRGIN'S DIARY, you'll love THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, and if you didn't, you will still probably enjoy MUSIC, with it's offbeat humor, and strong storyline. Possible noms for Rossellini and Medeiros from me. This Maddin fan gives it 4 1/2 cats"

Ron says: "It's hard to tell if he's in a coma or if he's just really, really sad: THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD is an unconventional, wildly inventive melodrama from director Guy Maddin, who most recently directed Chlotrudis Buried Treasure nominee DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY. Set in Winnipeg in the great depression of the 1930s, we are treated to the story of Lady Port-Huntley, a quadraplegic beer hall owner (Isabella Rossellini) who sponsors a contest to determine the country that has the saddest music in the world. Enter Chester (Mark McKinney), an old lover of Port-Huntley, who hopes to win the contest to afford passage to New York. Throw in Chester's father (who is in love with Port-Huntley and presents her with a pair of glass legs -- filled with beer), Chester's brother Roderick (a mysterious Siamese cellist), grainy black and white cinema verite style, and title sequences that look as though they've been lifted from a classic silent film, and you've got a movie that is most difficult to classify but is extremely funny and will leave you chuckling long after leaving the theatre."