Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World looks like it was rescued from a vault where old films were carelessly stored. It’s grainy and patchy, and atmospherically shadowy, flickering into colour occasionally and then back to icy tinged monochrome. It looks like it was filmed inside an intricate snow globe, and creates a visually perfect world for the delightfully skewed tale that unfolds - an unexpected, but seductive marriage between a Grimm fairy tale and a musical melodrama, full of sparkling one-liners.
It was made in 2003, but is set during the Great Depression in a snow-banked, freezing Winnipeg, which has been voted the world capital of sorrow for the fourth year in a row by the London Times. Lady Port-Huntley, played by Isabella Rossellini, magnificent in a cheap blonde wig and a glittering glass tiara, is a crippled beer baroness who proposes a competition. She offers 25,000 dollars to the country who can perform the saddest music, hoping that beer sales will soar as the melancholy music floods the airwaves. From across the world, musicians come to compete against one other, in pairs, their efforts commented on with radio announcer élan by the hosts Duncan Elksworth and Mary: ‘No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats and twins.’
While the music is eerily, beautifully playing in the background, a wonderful, warped family drama takes centre stage. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), with the moustachioed countenance of a bounder, has closed his heart to the tragedies of his Canadian past - the collapse of his mother as she sang, her death throes on the keyboard of a piano - and assumed the razzamatazz showmanship of an American producer. His current amorata Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), a charming changeling wrapped in fur, has escaped from her own personal trauma by forgetting it ever happened, living in a world of sensations, eyelashes aflutter, tender little voice breathing out a song, or a declaration of intent: ‘No, I’m not American, I’m a nymphomaniac.’ Amnesiac Narcissa is the wife of Chester’s estranged brother Roderick, played with lugubrious Deputy Dawg sadness by Ross McMillan, who is grieving for the loss of their child. Covered by a veil as black as night, and carrying a jar with his son’s heart preserved in tears, he is the entry for Serbia.
Their father Fyodor is involved too, a doctor who is hopelessly, remorsefully in love with Lady Port-Huntley. Crushed by guilt over the tragic events that left her legless, Fyodor has created transparent glass limbs filled with her own sparkling beer for his beloved. But even though Lady Port-Huntley loves her legs, and their dancing capabilities, her bitter, sharp heart, in a neat, complicated twist, belongs to Chester.
As the family circle around each other, nursing old grudges, mourning recent losses, suffering emotional pangs, Maddin creates a dark spell of a world for them to wander through, with mysterious dream sequences, funerals on ice skates, beer ads, tram rides, sleepwalkers, a carousing ice hockey team, a masked orchestra, and Chester’s perky musical numbers, which get more hectic as the competition progresses. The film crescendoes with glass shattering, pianos burning, sobriety abandoned and lovers embracing. The Saddest Music in the World is weird and wild, bold and beautiful and utterly enchanting.
Buy The Saddest Music In The World [DVD] from Amazon