In The Saddest Music in the World, a double amputee totters around on artificial glass legs filled with beer, a woman claims to communicate with a tapeworm living inside her, and nations compete in an Olympics of symphonic despair. Welcome to Guy Maddin’s most “mainstream” film yet.
Don’t be surprised if the name doesn’t ring a bell. The 48-year-old Canadian filmmaker has built his reputation largely among avant-garde enthusiasts with an oeuvre of freaky short films inspired by the look of German Expressionist classics. His forays into feature-length films have found characters washing their faces with straw (Tales from the Gimli Hospital), carrying around severed hands in a jar (Cowards Bend the Knee) or turning a blood transfusion into a metaphorical gang-rape (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary). The guy makes David Lynch look like Chris Columbus.
Maddin at his wildest is a glorious thing to behold, so it’s a delight to find that even as he experiments with making movies featuring “name” actors, he’s still going to do it his way. Set in 1933 Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World boasts a typically whacked-out Maddin premise. As a publicity stunt, Canadian beer heiress Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) launches an international competition to determine which nation boasts the most mournful music, offering a prize of “25,000 Depression-era dollars” to the winner.
Performers from around the world take up the challenge, but some of the contestants are no strangers to Lady Port-Huntley. Chester Kent (Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney), a down-on-his-luck huckster from New York, once turned her head; Chester’s father Fyodor (David Fox), representing Canada, once amputated her legs. Meanwhile, Chester’s brother Roderick (Ross McMillan)—who represents Serbia in the guise of eccentric cellist Gavrillo the Great—searches for his missing wife, who may be Chester’s new girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros).
In a way, The Saddest Music in the World boasts an extremely straightforward melodrama plot of lost loves filtered through Maddin’s distinctive sensibility. Much of that sensibility is visual, and Saddest Music finds him playing with many of his favorite tricks of the trade: grainy black-and-white footage with the gauzy glow of Murnau; scratchy, obviously overdubbed sound; overlapping images; fun with tinted sequences. Performances are stylized creations, like McKinney’s fast-talking Chester and McMillan’s hyper-sensitive Roderick. It’s a freaky dream world of Maddin’s own making, and you won’t mistake it for something from a TV movie-of-the-week—not when a group of hockey players suddenly bursts into song.
But what makes Maddin’s take on the avant-garde so bracing is his wicked sense of humor. The Saddest Music in the World’s credits claim it’s based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day)—which explains the relatively conventional structure—but the playful sense of the bizarre is pure Maddin. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Saddest Music contest itself, which turns the one-on-one national showdowns into brilliant camp theater. The most hysterical play-by-play commentary since Best in Show finds one announcer boasting that “nobody beats Siam when it comes to dignity, cats or twins;” winners take a victory slide into a gigantic tub of beer. Even as familiar a trope as the competition montage becomes a gleeful parade of Chester’s American disaster-themed production numbers, in keeping with his theory that an American entry should be “vulgar and obvious, with lots of gimmicks.” It’s almost impossible not to adore a film where the end of one contest is greeted by Lady Port-Huntley with the casual remark, “Go lift a thumb—Poland just beat Germany.”
Of course, it’s entirely possible not to adore The Saddest Music in the World if Maddin’s brand of madness simply leaves you scratching your head. For some, a tale without a genuine emotional hook and a string of goofy set pieces will never prove satisfying. For others, however, it may prove to be love at first inexplicable sight, the kind of experience that sends you scrambling to find everything else Guy Maddin has done. Just don’t be surprised when you discover that compared to The Saddest Music in the World—about as idiosyncratic a toe-dip into the mainstream as you’ll find—Maddin’s other stuff is really weird.
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, ***.5, Isabella Rosselini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, Not Rated