THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (2003) – The Dungeon Review!
Guy Maddin is a true original; not just in Canada but in the world of cinema period. Maddin’s unclassifiable, imaginative and beautiful films are presented in a non-linear format that harnesses a by gone era of filmmaking. Provocative, strange, sexy, thoughtful, violent, audacious, melodramatic and always humorous; no one makes films quite like my man Maddin. Maddin is a director, cinematographer, writer and artist. In fact some of his films and many of his ideas come from his art installation projects. Maddin definitely has a unique style but each one of his films stands as its own distinct entity. Maddin is a native of Winnipeg Manitoba. During Winnipeg’s long winters there are days you can not be outside for more than a few minutes due to fear of frostbite. There is no amount of money one could offer me to live in Winnipeg; I hate the winter. Maddin embraces his hometown and sets his films there. He includes countless amounts of Canadiana, especially hockey. In The Saddest Music in the World he uses a hockey buzzer to represent the beginning of each match in the saddest music competition. When I think of Canadian filmmakers there are no two that are nearer or dearer to my heart than David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin. I was torn as to which Maddin film I wanted to write about; I’ve seen all of his feature-length films and have enjoyed them all. Cowards Bend the Knee was my first choice as I have seen it multiple times and it remains my number one favourite from Maddin. I was anxious however to re-watch one of the Maddin films I had not seen multiple times so I chose The Saddest Music in the World. It had slipped my mind that The Kid’s in the Hall’s Mark McKinney was featured in The Saddest Music in the World until I looked at his IMDB credits while I was working on last week’s Brain Candy review. I had not seen The Saddest Music in the World since my theatre viewing; but I watched it three times from beginning to end over the last few days and this thing is a tasty treat! A contest to determine which nation’s music deserves to be called the saddest in the world that features a dysfunctional family, a glamorous, legless beer baroness, multiple love triangles and a giant tub of beer. What’s not to like? Oh Guy Maddin, I stand on guard for thee!
The Saddest Music in the World takes place in Winnipeg in 1933 in the depths of the great depression.
“We at Muskeg beer are proud that Winnipeg has been chosen four years in a row by the London Times as the world capital of sorrow in the great depression. In recognition of this honor we will be hosting a world-wide contest to determine which nation’s music truly deserves to be called The saddest in the world. Aspiring virtuosos of tearful melody are welcome to travel here and lay claim to the jewel-studded crown of frozen tears and twenty-five thousand dollars in prize money. That’s right. Twenty-five thousand depression era dollars.”
The saddest music contest is at the sudsy center of the story’s brewing melodrama. The film opens with Chester Kent visiting a fortune-teller with his girl Narcissa. We get a blue-tinted flashback to Chester’s childhood; the day his mother died. The grown up Chester is stuck in Winnipeg with no return ticket to New York. After learning of Lady Helen Port-Huntley’s contest he decides to pay her a visit. Helen and Chester have history; the two were formerly lovers. Chester’s father Fyodor Kent was in love with Helen but Helen was in love with Chester. Chester and Helen were having an affair much to Fyodor’s chagrin and the man took to drinking. One drunken night Fyodor wandered out into the road as Chester and Helen were driving by. Chester swerved to miss his father and in the process Helen was left badly injured with one of her legs pinned. Drunk and in no condition to be performing impromptu surgeries; Fyodor removed the wrong leg leaving Helen crippled for life. Present day Fyodor is still madly in love with Helen and has shown up in hopes of winning the saddest music contest. Canada Vs. U.S.A. Father against son. To complicate things further Roderick Kent has just returned from war in Serbia. Roderick is a hypochondriac who lost his son and is estranged from his wife. He despises his brother Chester and everything he stands for. Although born and raised in Canada Roderick is representing Serbia under the guise of Gravillo the Great who stays covered with a large black veil at all times. The dramatic Roderick carries his son’s heart in a jar preserved with his own tears. Roderick normally a quiet and reserved man looks forward to burying his brother with his sad cello music. What Roderick does not yet know is that Chester’s girl Narcissa is his estranged wife. The drama unfolds as the contest continues and countries are eliminated. Who will be left standing?
One image from The Saddest Music in the World that has stuck with me since that original viewing were those beer-filled glass legs. Fyodor spent years making a set of prosthetic legs for his lady-love Helen. She is allergic to the normal materials used in prosthetics and breaks out in welts and rashes. Helen loves glass and collects glass figurines and glass dolls that she keeps in a stained-glass room. It occurred to Fyodor as he sat among all the bottles he emptied that glass would be the perfect material for her legs. He even filled them with golden Muskeg beer! Oh how they sparkle and bubble! How did we become known as a beer loving nation? Certainly we love our beer, but I doubt we are any more enthusiastic about our beer than Germany or the UK. On the other hand, when we have a contest to celebrate the saddest music in the world we do provide a massive tub of beer for the winners to slide into! Beer clearly plays a major role in The Saddest Music in the World thanks to Beer Baroness Lady Port-Huntley’s Muskeg Beer (however Lady P prefers champagne and milk when bathing).
Esthetically Maddin seems to use every technique he has ever experimented with in The Saddest Music in the World. Maddin’s film is mainly black and white but also includes scenes using color filters as well as full spectrum color, The flashback scenes utilize the filtering while he chooses to use vibrant color when highlighting two funerals and the contest finale. Overlapping, quick cuts and grainy photography adorn the art deco esthetics with their bold geometric shapes. Visually The Saddest Music in the World is a real stunner.
If you are not familiar with Maddin’s work, his film style mimics those of the silent era and early talkies. In the case of The Saddest Music in the World there is spoken dialog. The subject matter however is considerably racier than those made in the 20s and 30s. There is sex in one form or another in every last one of Maddin’s films. In the opening scene Narcissa gives Chester a hand job while he is having his fortune told. Narcissa is also a nymphomaniac. Lady Port-Huntley has a man-servant named Teddy who satisfies her every need from bathing her to fucking her. Apparently that is one way to square up your debts with Lady P as Chester soon finds out. Despite the sex there is no nudity in the film.
I have never seen Mark McKinney in a serious role and to be honest he is not exactly a character you take seriously in The Saddest Music in the World. He is as genuine as a Snake Oil Salesmen and is as slippery as his hair. Chester is an arrogant, unemotional and failed Broadway producer looking for a train ticket back to New York. Chester always has an angle. Chester Kent is told by the fortune-teller at the beginning of the film that his story will end tragically. Chester Kent is not exactly a likable character and despite anticipating his fall you never really root for him. I enjoyed McKinney and thought he was well suited for the role. Isabella Rossellini is absolutely magnificent in The Saddest Music in the World. Besides Blue Velvet I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a performance from Rossellini more. She also looks fantastic in that 30s era costuming! Lady Helen Port-Huntley is a powerful, shrewd and intelligent business woman. Her exterior is glamorous and elegant but she is full of self-loathing and anger on account of her missing legs and inability to find a prosthetic that doesn’t cause her to break out in a rash. She is also a touch eccentric and kinky. Rossellini steals every scene she is in. Roderick Kent is a hypochondriac with particularly sensitive skin. When his father sees him again for the first time he hugs him and Roderick shouts in pain. There is no love loss between Roderick and his brother Chester, the two could not possibly be more unalike. When it comes to Chester, Roderick lacks pity completely. Roderick is as honest as the day is long and wears his sadness like a medal of honor. He carries with him his young son’s heart preserved in a jar of his tears. His sadness is so over the top that it is actually humorous at times. Ross McMillan is great as the humorless Roderick and never strays from the serious as cancer vibe of the character for a second. Fyodor Kent is a new man since giving up alcohol in order to obsess over legs. For years, Fyodor has been working on a pair of legs for Helen. He is a proud Canadian who dons the uniform he wore during the great war. His finale is one of the film’s finest moments. David Fox has a strong face and a great presence as Fyodor Kent. Last but not least is the quirky Narcissa; girlfriend to Chester and former wife of Roderick. Narcissa is a nymphomaniac who is suffering from amnesia. She has no recollection of her marriage to Roderick or their dead child. She does however have a tape worm that tells her what to do. Her tape worm is allegedly never wrong. She is a likable, sweet character and definitely the most empathetic of the lot. Big old Doe-eyed Maria de Medeiros is delightful in the role of Narcissa.
The Saddest Music in the World is a treasure. I think this is Maddin’s most consistently humorous effort. I chuckled regularly throughout. An outrageous premise, great characters, strong performances, inventively filmed and melodrama that kept me invested and entertained. It also features some magnificent music. The contest that motivates our story features music from around the world and some of it is really breath-taking! Each time I re-watch a Guy Maddin film I hunger for another. I loved The Saddest Music in the World and give it my highest of recommendations; a perfect score.
Contest commentators Duncan Elksworth (Claude Dorge) and Mary (Talia Pura).
Contestants in The Saddest Music in the World contest.
Roderick Kent played by Ross McMillan.
Colored funeral shots.
Fyodor shows Roderick the project he has been working on; a pair of legs for Lady Helen Port-Huntley. Previous to the unveiling of the beautiful glass legs is a cool gallery of leg imagery.
Canada Vs. Africa. Fyodor Kent sings Red Maple Leaves on his knees and has his ass handed to him by Africa.
Narcissa sings Swing Low Sweet Chariot while swinging above the enthusiastic beer-drinking audience.
“Maybe you should keep it simple.”
“America goes simple? That’s a hot one. No. It’s gotta be vulgar, obvious, full of gimmicks. You know, sadness but with sass and pizzazz. They’ll eat it up.”
Lady Helen Port-Huntley played by Isabella Rossellini; enjoying her new legs.
Narcissa played by Maria de Medeiros.
Another funeral “in color”.
Chester and Narcissa.
The U.S.A.’s spectacular finale featuring Lady Port-Huntley.
Roderick performing for Serbia as Gravillo the Great.
David Fox as Fyodor Kent.
Narcissa and Roderick reunited.
Mark McKinney as Chester Kent.
The film ends where it started with a fortune-teller.
Dungeon Review: 5/5
Directed By: Guy Maddin
Starring: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Claude Dorge, Talia Pura