Thursday, July 8, 2004
Like several of today’s most exciting directors (including Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes and, most influentially, David Lynch), Canadian director Guy Maddin is fascinated by melodrama—run-amok desire, soul-crunching love, the abattoir of family dysfunction. His enjoyably loopy new movie, The Saddest Music in the World—surely the oddest 1930s musical ever made, in or out of the 1930s—begins with a hand job and a talking tapeworm, then ends in fiery apocalypse.
The story takes place in 1933 Winnipeg, a cold, Depression-era city that has supposedly been thrice named the World Capital of Sorrow. Hoping to grab a PR boost from that title when Prohibition ends in the US, legless beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) sponsors a competition to determine which country has the world’s saddest music. Top prize is a collection of frozen tears, and $25,000. As if by magic, contestants come pouring into Winnipeg from Mexico, Poland, Siam—from all over the globe, and in their native costumes—to engage in a series of musical sad-offs that end with the winners bombing down a chute into a huge tub of Canadian beer.
At the center of this melodious battle royal are three Winnipegians. Competing for Canada is Fyodor Kent (David Fox), an alcoholic ex-doctor still haunted by World War I and memories of mistakenly amputating the gams of his onetime love, none other than Lady Port-Huntly. The US entry is his faux-American son, Chester, a bad-mustachioed rotter who, as played by Mark McKinney, looks like a slicked-up, small-city hoser impersonating James Brolin impersonating Clark Gable. He promises to give the competition a dose of American sex appeal—“sadness with sass and pizzazz.” Where Chester proudly wears his heartlessness on his sleeve, his cello-whiz brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) is so overflowing with grief that he actually carries around a jar containing the heart of his dead son. Returning from his adoptive Serbia to compete under the preposterous moniker Gavrillo the Great, he’s glumly unaware that Chester’s latest lover is actually his long-vanished, amnesiac wife.
Fittingly named Narcissa, the woman in question is played by goofy Maria de Medeiros, familiar as Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in Pulp Fiction, and the closest thing Europe has produced to Betty Boop. Her presence underscores one big difference between The Saddest Music in the World and Maddin’s earlier work—here he could afford to hire decent actors. Working with the titanic budget (for him) of $2.5 million, he gets fine, smirky work from Canadian icon McKinney, one of the original Kids in the Hall, who captures all the tinny cynicism of Chester’s insistence that sadness “is just show business.” And Maddin wins a wonderful turn from the blond-wigged Rossellini. Whether rolling her torso around on a dolly or wiping her mouth after a bout of front-seat fellatio, she’s obviously having a ball.
Of course, actors are only a part of the baroque Maddin world, whose most immediately startling feature is its gleefully artificial look: The whole movie seems to take place inside a snow globe. One of The Saddest Music’s constant pleasures is Matthew Davies’ flamboyant, stage-bound production design, whose art-deco sets and streets a-swirl with mock snow play host to the contest’s variegated competitors—all those Mexican mariachis, African drummers and bagpiping Scots. Even as he uses these colorful presences to riff on old musicals—or at least the idea of them—Maddin employs his trademark silent-movie aesthetic with its irises, tinted black-and-white images and gauzy photography.
While such extravagance is pure Maddin, the movie is based on an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for Remains of the Day. The whole thing has been radically reworked by Maddin and his longtime collaborator George Toles. Nobody this side of the Coen brothers writes stylized dialogue with such painstakingly lunatic precision: “I’m not an American,” Narcissa placidly tells an inquiring stranger. “I’m a nymphomaniac.”
I suspect Ishiguro must be slightly flabbergasted by what’s become of his original idea. For even as it spins a delirious domestic tragedy, The Saddest Music in the World offers a mordant vision of how popular entertainment cheapens the deepest human emotions by turning them into commercial product—much to the baying delight of the contest’s imaginary audience. As a Canadian filmmaker whose work is (to put it mildly) uncommercial, Maddin is acutely aware of how the breezy superficiality of American pop culture, especially Hollywood, has colonized the planet.
The Saddest Music In The World (3 stars)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Starring Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Mark McKinney
(Rated R, 99 min.