3 stars (out of 4)
Guy Maddin's wonderfully nutty "The Saddest Music in the World" is another weird little film from a remarkable filmmaker who doesn't care what the mainstream audience thinks of him.
Like almost all the films of this original, cinephile Canadian director, it's a work for specialized tastes: for audiences who adore old movies, dark jokes and some high camp. And, for anyone who admires Maddin's "Tales of the Gimli Hospital," "Archangel" and his six-minute masterpiece "The Heart of the World," it will be another crazy little treat: a deliberately over-the-top musical comedy-romance-drama, shot, like all his films, in a deliberately anachronistic style.
As before, Maddin is pastiching the movies of the early '30s. But he has an even odder script than usual for him. Based on an original screenplay by Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day"), the story is a bit of straight-faced lunacy about a Depression-era musical contest, held in Winnipeg, to select the world's saddest music. Sponsored by the ravishing brewer--Beer Queen of the Prairie and double amputee diva Lady Port-Huntly (played by Isabella Rossellini, at her toniest)--the contest is a sort of dirge Olympics. We suspect, quite early on, that it will be won by someone performing the incessantly repeated Kern-Hammerstein ballad, "The Song is You."
Each country sends an official entry and America's hope is brash Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of "Kids in the Hall"), whose name and hard-charging personality come from Jimmy Cagney's never-say-die producer/choreographer in the 1933 Busby Berkeley classic "Footlight Parade." Chester here shows up with nymphomaniac Portuguese girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, the Anais Nin of "Henry and June") and gradually his insane family history is revealed.
Lady Port-Huntly is his ex-lover and his father, Fyodor Kent (David Fox), who is also Lady P.'s ex-mate, was the doctor who amputated her legs after a car accident. As Chester re-establishes ties, Fyodor tries to atone for his sin by making Lady P. two gorgeous glass legs, each filled with her own brand of Muskeg Beer.
When the contest starts--it's conducted in musical duels--we learn more of the Kent Chronicles: Chester's brother Roderick has long since emigrated to Serbia, the country he represents under his stage name, as the great melancholy cellist Garvilo. So as the brothers head toward a confrontation, and the Kent sexual history gets weirder and weirder, Chester schemes, nation wails against nation and "The Song is You" keeps haunting the movie and us.
With a story like that, it's obvious that style is everything here--as it always is for Maddin. He can counterfeit the more theatrical moviemaking styles of the '20s ("Heart of the World") and '30s ("Gimli Hospital" and this) with incredible accuracy. "Saddest Music," set during the Depression, really looks as if it were shot circa 1933-5.
It's a bit precious in dialogue and acting and the joke goes on too long, but "Saddest Music" gets points for talent and audacity. Maddin is one director who could never be plausibly accused of selling out, and he's in good, if shaggy, form here.
"The Saddest Music in the World," in the end, is a strange, finely-wrought movie out about the perversity of art, the hell of families and the chains of commerce, coming from a director who wallows in the former two and ignores the last. It slayed me. So, by the way, does "The Song is You."
"The Saddest Music in the World"
Directed by Guy Maddin. written by Maddin and George Toles, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro; photographed by Luc Montpellier; edited by David Wharnsby; production designed by Matthew Davis; music by Christopher Dedrick; produced by Niv Fichman and Jody Shapiro. An IFC Films release; opens Friday, May 14, at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:39. No MPAA rating.
Chester Kent - Mark McKinney
Lady Port-Huntly - Isabella Rossellini
Narcissa - Maria de Medeiros
Fyodor - David Fox
Roderick Kent/Gavrilo - Ross McMillan