Movie Review
The Saddest Music in the World


2003

Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros
B+


uspension of disbelief is almost always a key factor in determining how much you’ll get out of the experience of sitting in a darkened theatre and watching a movie. Almost always—but not always. There is, of course, the most obvious exception of non-fiction films. There are some movies that hit so close to home that enjoyment in the usual sense seems ultimately beside the point. And then there are farces.

Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World falls roughly into this latter category of movies that don’t necessarily require any serious suspension of disbelief to be adequately appreciated. ‘Roughly’, because it’s what might be somewhat awkwardly described as an “art-farce”; Maddin’s film is presumably way too willfully eccentric to appeal to most moviegoers’ expectations of farcial comedy. Still, it fits nicely with Dictionary.com’s definition: “A light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect.”


The most sophisticated episode of Kids in the Hall ever made...


As its title might suggest, it's an absurdist melodrama centering on an international contest, sponsored by Winnipeg “beer baroness” Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), that serves to determine which nation’s music is the world's saddest. (Her catch-phrase: “If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady.”) Enter: Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), the Canadian expatriate representing America in the contest; a down-on-his-luck composer of Broadway musicals, he pledges to serve up “sadness but with sass and pizzazz.” Chester is also, we soon find out, Port-Huntly’s former lover. His father, Dr. Fyodor Kent (David Fox), representing Canada, is still madly in love with his son’s ex-flame, and in attempt to make up for drunkenly amputating both of her legs (only one needed amputating, but he was seeing double, we learn through a flashback) has crafted her a pair of beer-filled glass gams fit for…well, a legless beer baroness . Oh, and Chester’s estranged brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan), posing as a Serbian cellist called Gravillo the Great, also returns home to Winnipeg for the competition. While Roderick mourns the death of his young son and the mysterious disappearance of his beloved wife, Chester lives it up with his new girlfriend, an amnesiac nymphomaniac named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, of Pulp Fiction fame). I imagine you can guess where things head from there.


"Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"


The film’s plot is more convoluted than a typical Marx Brothers movie, which is only appropriate since Maddin seems to have drawn heavily on Marx classics like Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera as a source of inspiration for his film’s anarchic tone—those, among countless other aesthetic artifacts of cinema past, sadly forgotten by most folks. Set during the Prohibition era and inspired by an apparently serious unfilmed script by Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro (presumably, radically refashioned by Maddin and George Toles, who are co-credited with the film’s screenplay), Saddest Music plays like a surreal string of lovingly arranged allusions and anachronisms. Though it can easily be read as an allegory for Canadian self-identity (especially in relation to the United States), Maddin’s movie might work best of all as a drinking game for obscurantist cinephiles—and not just because it features composers and musicians from around the world sliding gleefully into a large vat of beer.



By: Josh Timmermann
2004-10-07


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