The Saddest Music in the World Review
Unlikely to be coming to a multiplex near you soon, experimental Canadian director Guy Maddin’s latest film may well be his most accessible film yet, but it is still a million miles away from mainstream cinema and is certain to infuriate as many viewers as it delights.
Winnipeg, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), a beer magnate who has had both legs amputated after a car accident, aware that sad songs drive people to drink more and mindful that prohibition in America is coming to end, organises an international contest offering $25,000 to the nation who plays the saddest music in the world. Among the contestants is the man responsible for the loss of her legs – her former husband Fyodor (David Fox), representing Canada. Also competing are his son and former lover of Lady Port-Huntley, Chester (Mark McKinney) with his amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) both representing the United States of America, and the mysterious Serbian contestant Gavrilo the Great (Ross McMillan), who keeps his dead son’s heart in a jar of tears and plays a haunting melody on a cello in memory of the nine million killed in the Great War.
The film, scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro definitely more along the lines of his stream-of-conscious dream novel The Unconsoled than The Remains of the Day, goes to even more bizarre lengths as the contestants face up to each other – Siamese flautists, Mexican mariachis, Scottish pipers and Spanish flamenco performers – the winners of each round being dropped into a vat of beer as the prohibition alcohol-starved population of America listen in on their radio sets. Guy Maddin’s film defies categorisation and makes description extremely difficult, yet you will find yourself trying to contrive unlikely combinations of films in order to explain what it is like – Moulin Rouge directed by David Lynch? Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime, rewritten by Dennis Potter? – ...and inevitably failing.
There is only one way to approach this film – with an open mind and a willingness to let the director and writer take you wherever their fevered imaginations lead them. You could attempt to analyse the cinematic techniques used for irony – the grainy, fuzzy, mainly black and white 1930’s retro-style melodrama and appropriation of silent cinema and expressionist techniques – or look for a satire of big business exploitation of the public, reducing culture and art to tacky spectacles, but such examination is not only futile, it is entirely against the whole spirit of the film. This is pure, unbridled fun with - believe it or not - no pretensions whatsoever other than to deliver a fresh, original and imaginative alternative to an increasingly formulaic mainstream cinema – a movie where you can leave your brain at the door and still live with yourself the morning after.