By Rob Scherf
Thank God. With the release of The Saddest Music in the World, a Canadian artist finally has the balls to come right out and say we Canucks are a pretty moody bunch. And who is this trailblazing entrepreneur of fresh-air filmmaking? None other than cinematic lo-fi auteur Guy Maddin. Maddin’s delievers a strange mix of Eraserhead-era David Lynch’s aesthetics placed within Atom Egoyan’s disheartening settings, often employing cardboard cutout sets and digitally-created archaic camera effects. Visually, the film is much closer to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than anything by Maddin’s contemporaries. What audiences see as simply cute impressionism is cleverly employed as a disarming tool to execute Saddest Music’s two-pronged assault of melodrama and musical.
The Great Depression is in full swing during 1933’s Winnipeg, and glass-legged–literally–liquor empress Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rosselini) is making a killing attracting Prohibition-deposed barflies up north by staging a contest letting them drown their sorrows to the tune of the world’s saddest music. Heavy-hearted performers from every continent show up at Port-Huntly’s place for their shot at the $25,000 grand prize. Among them is snappy Yank Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who has a past with Lady Port-Huntly and is a man with PT Barnum’s aspirations of showmanship. In tow with Kent is his beautiful lover with the eye roll inducing name Narcissa (an ageless Maria de Medeiros), a Serbian refugee and full-time temptress.
The drama unfolds as Kent attempts to debase the contest by buying up all the good acts with American greenbacks, rolling them all into a rickety burlesque show he describes as “sadness–with pizzaz!” Meanwhile several love triangles struggle to work themselves out, as the film barrels toward a bloody crescedo.
It’s the curse of melodrama to be disposable, and Maddin’s choice to use his trademark style with The Saddest Music in the World definitely ups the film’s gimmick factor tenfold. In the end its sterling performances and dry wit make for a memorable film. Neither moving or the least bit thought provoking, Maddin’s third feature is a clever, if strictly unchallenging, way to spend an evening at the nickelodeon.