The Saddest Music In The World

The Saddest Music In The World

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrea Mullaney

"If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady," says Isabella Rossellini's lonely amputee brewery owner, as she launches a contest to find the most mournful piece of music in the world.

And if you like surreal fantasy with a stylish twist, this is your movie.

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Guy Maddin's most mainstream film to date is a dazzlingly entertaining, stupendously odd slice of whimsy, crammed with camera effects, silly jokes and homages. In its scattergun invention and unsentimental broadness, it almost echoes Orson Welles' work at its most playful.

The film opens like an old RKO Radio Picture, with archaic titles announcing that it's "the Depths of the Depression" in Winnipeg, Canada - here reinvented, in Maddin's latest attempt to mythologise his favourite town as a racy metropolis where the beer flows freely, unlike neighbouring Prohibition America. The bonkers plot concerns Lady Port-Huntley's attempts to induce binge drinking through the various entrants drawn from around the globe, including drum-beating Africans, bagpipe-whirling Scots, flamenco balladeers from Spain, Mexican mariachis and so on, who all rush to vie for the $25,000 prize.

Among them are her old flames, father and son, Fyodor and Chester, who are to blame for the accident which took her legs - Fyodor's drunken double vision cut off the wrong one, you see. There, too, is Chester's brother Roderick, a tragic figure dressed like a mourning beekeeper, searching for his lost wife Narcissa, who has actually taken up with Chester.

Despite everything ridiculous that happens from then on, including a pair of beer-filled glass legs presented to Lady Port-Huntley, who delightedly declares she'll never have to shave again, the film stays the right side of wacky, teetering at the top, but not quite going over. This is helped by an enthusiastic and mostly unfamiliar cast, who throw themselves into it with abandon and are well-chosen, with faces that remind you of the classic films Madden is paying tribute to.

As Chester, Mark McKinney, part of the Pythonesque Canadian comedy team The Kids In The Hall, has a bland, slightly caddish leading man look, like a young Joseph Cotton. His contest entry is full of Broadway schlock: "It's sadness, but with glitz and pizzazz!" he boasts. Maria de Medeiros, best known as Bruce Willis's girlfriend in Pulp Fiction, has the charm of a Chaplin ingénue, as the amnesiac Narcissa, while Rossellini turns in a splendidly melodramatic performance - and we all know whom she reminds us of.

The film uses techniques of soft focus, deliberately artificial sets, blurred edges and jerky cinematography to evoke not the real 1930s, but the ones created to soften the real hardship of the time, which has come to represent the era for those of us born after. In this dream world, it feels right when characters burst into song, even outside the competition, although funnily enough most of the music isn't depressing at all.

Nor is the movie, which is hilarious throughout. While certainly not for everyone, it's such an oddball concoction that it's hard to predict who in particular it IS for - but anyone with a real fondness for classic cinema should definitely give it a go.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2004
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Depression-era melodrama where beer baroness runs competition to discover the saddest music in the world.
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Read more The Saddest Music In The World reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****1/2

Director: Guy Maddin

Writer: Guy Maddin, Georges Toles. Based on the screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro

Starring: Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan

Year: 2003

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada

Festivals:

EIFF 2011

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