Dir. Guy Maddin. Canada. 2003. 99 min.
Canadian auteur Guy Maddin is considered by many an unheralded cinematic genius. The Saddest Music In The World will change that at home: Canadian audiences will give this raucous comedy the art-house welcome it richly deserves. Abroad, it will test the ingenuity of international buyers seeking to position this rare bird. To say this is Maddin's most commercially-viable film isn't saying much, given that it's shot almost entirely in black-and-white and in Maddin's trade-mark silent-era style. Indeed, its sheer novelty could lead to broader art-house territory. The trick will be leveraging the already growing critical adulation, the star wattage of lead Isabella Rossellini and a stand-out comic turn by Mark McKinney, best-known for his work on US comedy show Saturday Night Live and in the comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall.
To say the film is set in a wintry Depression-era Winnipeg would be a literal-minded disservice: filmed entirely in studio, Matthew Davies' mind-boggling production design is a curio that belongs in snow globe, where the trolley cars scuttle like moles in channels of snow and a legless brewery baroness rules her empire from atop a pair of glass legs filled with beer.
Said baroness, Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini), concocts a cynical plan to boost consumption of her product. Knowing well that sorrow is best drowned in alcohol - 'if you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady' -- she holds a competition for the saddest music in the world. From all points, musicians come to vie for the prize and the tear-ducts of the crowds. Among them are two estranged Canadian brothers, Chester (McKinney), a failed Broadway producer, and Roderick (McMillan), a dyspeptic cellist who pines for his lost wife and son. In true Canadian spirit, Chester decides to represent the US while Roderick, posing incognito, will represent Serbia (the sad land that started WWI). While Chester goes about bribing the best of other countries' entertainers to join his Yankee Doodle 'cavalcade of misery', Roderick discovers that Chester's amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (de Medeiros) is in fact Roderick's long-lost wife.
McKinney, channeling Groucho Marx via Clark Gable, pulls out all the stops. He tunnels into Chester's cheerful connivance with lip-smacking gusto. There is no low he won't go to achieve his aim, including re-igniting the passion of Lady Port-Huntly. For her part, Rossellini is exceptional in a role unlike any she has played. The other performers are exceptional in their believability given the absurdity that reigns. Only the tiny perfect Maria de Medeiros could say, 'I'm not an American. I'm an nymphomaniac.
Maddin's accomplishment cannot be understated: he achieves everything his backers must have been looking for - a coherent plot, a compelling dramatic arc - while staying true to his bizarrely beautiful aesthetic. Endlessly inventive, brimming with spit-fire wit, an homage to cinema stretching from formalist silent melodrama to screw-ball comedies of the 1930s and underpinned by contemporary political satire: this is a true work of film art.
Prod co: Rhombus Media/Buffalo Gal Pictures
Int'l sales: Rhombus International
Prods: Niv Fichman, Jody Shapiro
Scr: Guy Maddin, George Toles, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro
DoP: Luc Montpellier
Prod des: Matthew Davis
Ed: David Wharnsby
Mus: Christopher Dedrick
Main cast: Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan