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The Saddest Music in the World

Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003 (2004 theatrical release)

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: November 18, 2004

By Laurence Station

From Terms of Endearment to Steel Magnolias and Beaches, shamelessly manipulative tearjerkers are a Hollywood staple. Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, operating well outside the mainstream, indirectly comments on the contrived tearjerker with The Saddest Music in the World, a film that wants us to laugh through the tears while never forgetting that this is just a movie and is deliberately toying with our emotions.

Of course, Maddin's antiquated film style -- choppy frame rates, artificially tinted colors, and stiff dialogue -- rarely allows the viewer to fall into his films. Rather, Maddin rejects immersion in favor of an exaggerated, carnival theatricality, deliberately crippled smoke-and-mirror deceptions that don't attempt to mask the ultimate objective: to thrill, cajole and fascinate the paying customers. This is, after all, a director who filmed a ballet based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and made a six-minute short about the end of the world that took great delight in taking the air out of similarly intentioned but bloated Armageddon-like disaster flicks. Maddin's a genial, self-conscious magician who'll give away the secret to his craft over a pint and a little prodding.

Speaking of pints, The Saddest Music in the World (adapted from an original screenplay by respected author Kazuo Ishiguro) is all about beer -- specifically, crying into deep, sudsy mugs. Isabella Rossellini plays Depression-era Winnipeg beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly. The ruthless, cunning Port-Huntly, who lost her legs in a bizarre roadside amputation accident, understands the connection between beer and sadness ("If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady") and sponsors a contest to find the world's saddest music. Naturally, with all that depressing music being played, enormous vats of Port-Huntly's brew will be consumed. It's a promotional coup. Shortly, representatives of various nations from across the globe arrive, bringing indigenous dirges to Lady Port-Huntly's cavernous factory/beer hall.

Key participants include transplanted Canadian and American representative Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame), who spurned Port-Huntly's advances years earlier; Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester's amnesiac, sleepwalking, nymphomaniac muse; Roderick Kent (Ross McMillan), Chester's morose, cello-playing brother, whose son died young, causing the dissolution of his marriage to Narcissa (who of course, in her current state, hasn't a clue who he is), representing Serbia; and alcoholic physician and father of the two boys, Fyodor Kent (David Fox), representing Canada. Fyodor's devotion to Lady Port-Huntly is symbolized by a gift he makes for her, a pair of glass legs filled with (what else?) beer.

Fyodor loves Port-Huntly, who desires Chester, who's enamored with Narcissa, who is just one sad song away from snapping out of her sadness-induced amnesia and recognizing Roderick, her husband. Amidst these complicated love games, the contest between nations is creatively staged with a battle-of-the-bands-style showdown, with Lady Port-Huntly rendering her thumbs up/down verdict in true Roman Empress fashion. Wintry Winnipeg (actually a soundstage -- but one located in Manitoba's capital city) serves as an appropriate setting for the swirling inclement conditions, and the film's reflection on hearts long frozen over and those slowly thawing.

Maddin's major idea here is that sadness is a plea for sympathy. Whether it's attending a funeral or singing a song to a dead child, the important thing to remember is that it is the living craving attention at the expense of whatever it is that's made them so glum. And that is where Maddin's critique of carefully calculated big-screen weepers hits its target. The only character not longing for a little compassion is Chester -- the brash representation of America. Chester is bluntly honest and shrewdly pragmatic. He's also the saddest player in the story, for without sympathy (either giving or receiving), can a person truly be human?

The shortcomings in Saddest Music are few but notable. Maddin overplays his narrative hand with a cartoonish, icebound seeress who foretells Chester's downfall. And it doesn't take an old wise woman to accurately predict that the final showdown for the Saddest Music in the World will come down to the sibling rivals.

The Saddest Music in the World will undoubtedly expand Maddin's profile; it's his best work to date. And fortunately, there's little doubt the determinedly independent filmmaker will continue to operate by his unique set of filmic principles, regardless of how large the budgets grow or how sweet the smell (or sound) of success. Cheers to that.

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