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SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, THE(director/writer: Guy Maddin; screenwriter: George Toles/from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; cinematographer: Luc Montpellier; editor: David Wharnsby; music: Chris Dedrick; cast: Isabella Rossellini (Lady Helen Port-Huntley), Mark McKinney (Chester Kent), Maria de Medeiros (Narcissa), David Fox (Dr. Fyodor Kent), Ross McMillan (Roderick Kent/Gravillo the Great) Claude Dorge (Duncan), Darcy Fehr (Teddy), Erik J. Berg (Orphan), Brent Neale (Polish Pianist); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Niv Fichman/Jody Shapiro; IFC Films; 2003-Canada)
“Requires an acquired taste for such inspired but unwieldy madness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (“Heart of the World”/”Tales from the Gimli Hospital”) bases this weird experimental musical drama (really a bizarre comedy), a film that requires an acquired taste for such inspired but unwieldy madness, on Booker prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s original screenplay (The Remains of the Day). It’s shot in an old-fashioned movie style of tinted black-and-white photography with occasional sharp-toned color inserts. The Saddest Music in the World is set in snowy Winnipeg in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, where the attractive, platinum-wigged, legless local beer magnate Lady Helen Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to award $25,000 to discover which country has the world’s saddest music. It’s done as a sales promotion event for her brewery. Anticipating the end of Prohibition in the States, the baroness aims to corner the market as soon as beer becomes legal. This brings on a wide range of contestants from around the world, each representing their country, who do vaudeville bits that are considerably off-the-wall, as Lady Huntly acts as judge and the broadcasts are live–accompanied by hilariously inane color commentary (such as the remarks on Siam: “Nobody can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats, or twins”). Winnipeg, which is covered in snow and looks like a depressed city, has been voted the World Capital of Sorrow, which is the reason the contest is held there.

A family of Canadians with connections to Port-Huntly, that include a former doctor turned streetcar driver and his two sons with opposite personalities, have entered the contest. Fyodor Kent (David Fox) is the father, who was the suitor of Port-Huntly. When she got into a car accident he was drunk and amputated the wrong leg, and as a result she lost both legs to amputations. During the contest he offers her a gift of prosthetic glass legs filled with beer, which greatly pleases her. Fyodor represents Canada and will sing a stirring rendition of “Red Maple Leaves.” Failed Broadway impresario and former native of Winnipeg and also the former lover of Port-Huntly, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), returns to his hometown with his hot lady companion Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). She’s a sleepwalker who suffers from amnesia and regales as a nymphomaniac. They visit a gypsy fortune-teller, where Chester spends his last dime to only learn that his prospects are grim. But the glib, happy-go-lucky Chester is not deterred and represents America in the contest and plans to wow them by his showbiz know-how in spicing up a sad tune … where he will conduct a panpipe ensemble. The extremely sullen, hypochondriac Roderick Kent (Ross McMillan) was once married to Narcissa, though she can’t remember him. He will represent Serbia for no other reason than he identifies with their grief for initiating the catastrophic Great War. It’s also learned that Roderick keeps his dead son’s heart in a jar after his wife Narcissa abandoned him and now calls himself “Gavrilo the Great, Europe’s Greatest Cellist.” He will play the cello for the contest.

One thing can be said for certain about Maddin’s films–they are original. And, though his films have only attracted a limited audience, that audience remains loyal to his peculiar storylines and supports him with a strong cult-following. Maddin has an affinity for those old Hollywood melodramas and its silent films, and loves to introduce nostalgia as part of the film experience. There are many references to the old-time filmmakers, from the Rossellini amputee portrayal reminding me of Lon Chaney to her character’s car accident caused by her giving head to the driver–which is similar to the accident that took the life of the great director FW Murnau. Though following the many story line threads was diverting and richly imaginative, the film still felt lightweight and bound with too many sight gags and perverse melodramatics for me to say that this is something more than an engaging esoteric piece. Nevertheless, as much as I found this film coming up short because of its thinness, I’d still rather see such daring filmmaking than the usual formulaic stuff presented by most of Maddin’s peers.

REVIEWED ON 11/18/2004 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”