Brattle Film Notes

(They still haven't published 'em yet, so for now, they remain a Lymejello exculsive).

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.