October 19, 2003

The Saddest Music in the World

Starring Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney and Maria de Medeiros Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With a cast that boasts Isabella Rossellini, one would guess that director Guy Maddin’s latest effort would show him finally ready for the mainstream. Well, guess again. The Saddest Music in the World is every bit as bizarre, uncompromising and wicked as Maddin’s previous films. Which is good news for Maddin’s hard-core fans, and promises a bumpy ride for those uninitiated moviegoers who are curious enough to check it out.

Set in Depression-era Winnipeg, the film is a melodramatic musical that revolves around a contest aiming to determine which country in the world produces the saddest music. Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini), a bitter double-amputee and beer mogul who profited during the prohibition era, is offering $25,000 to the winner. “If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady,” she assures. The contest brings together the estranged Kent family that includes Chester (Mark McKinney), a pseudo-American who failed to succeed on Broadway; brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), a pseudo-Serbian whose son died and wife disappeared; and their father Fyodor (David Fox), an alcoholic Canadian former surgeon. Chester and Fyodor were responsible for Lady Port-Huntley’s amputations. And Chester’s amnesiac travelling companion Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) also may turn out to be Roderick’s missing wife.

The film enthusiastically ventures into full-fledged absurdity as competitors from around the world gather in Winnipeg. An assortment of ethnographic musical performances is documented with newsreel-like footage complete with vintage-styled title cards. Winners of each round receive Lady Port-Huntley’s dramatic thumbs-up approval and then slide into a pool filled with beer. Another memorable oddity in the film is the set of beer-filled glass legs given to Lady Port-Huntley by the guilt-ridden Fyodor.

As usual, it’s nearly impossible to decode all of Maddin’s filmmaking influences. Perhaps that’s why his films generally fare better with critics than with the general movie-going public. Stylistically, there are traces of German expressionism, early talkies, newsreels, musicals and even early David Lynch. Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay by Maddin and George Toles, this film is wholly ingenious and offbeat throughout. But those who are accustomed to conventional filmmaking may quickly overlook the film’s ingenuity and become weary of its style. Who can really blame them? No one enjoys a joke that they are not in on.

No one in the ensemble cast is particularly memorable here. Which is ironic, since it’s the first time Maddin has a cast with marquee value. Even though the film seems to promise a comeback of sorts for Rossellini, she is terribly underutilized in the lead. McKinney’s performance is basically a one-note riff, while de Medeiros is only effective in her resemblance to Brigitte Helm. One wonders why these recognizable stars were cast in the first place, since they will only help attract viewers who don’t generally appreciate this type of film. Even if Music manages to convert a few uninitiated viewers into fans, the film will leave the vast majority of moviegoers disappointed and frustrated since it isn’t meant for them in the first place.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.