The Saddest music in the World – Guy Maddin makes morbid arty self-consciousness fun. (film review)

“I just try and put things into forms that will be fun, and if anything, it feels just too good to blurt out the truth.” Guy Maddin

I saw my first Guy Maddin film, Keyhole,  at the Sydney underground film festival last year. I liked it immediately, feeling right at home with all his film references and the strange twists he burdens them with. This week I had a chance to see The Saddest Music in the World, which gives Keyhole some context and gives me a better feel for Guy Maddin. The Saddest Music in the World is a better film, but Maddin’s passion for creating snow-dome worlds and locking us in them is a technique he can use over and over again, as his deconstructions of potent film genres all come alive under his ministrations. Like most of Guy Maddin’s films, The Saddest Music in the World is filmed in a style that imitates late 1920s and early 1930s cinema, with grainy black-and-white photography, slightly out-of-sync sound and expressionist art design. A few scenes are filmed in color, in a manner that imitates early two-strip Technicolor. Interestingly the film is adapted from a screen play by Kazuo Ishiguro.  A quote from Maddin explains that they kept “the title, the premise and the contest – to determine which country’s music was the saddest” and re-wrote the rest of the film themselves. Ishiguro’s play was about the way third world nations have to humble themselves and emphasis their suffering in order to qualify for charity dollars. You can see the tattered remnants of this sentiment in Maddin’s film, but thankfully Maddin has made it completely his own.

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If you’re not familiar with Maddin, his work is best described as magic realism / surrealist / with a dash of film theory.  If you can get your mind around this analogy, he’s a little like David Lynch on blow. He’s surreal to be sure, but there is a hyper quality, as if his films are panting with their own giddy unbearable lightness. Maddin takes himself less seriously than Lynch does, and the effect is pleasant, although not at all less disturbing. I can imagine Lynch fans disagreeing with this idea, and that’s fair enough. Probably the best way to describe Guy Maddin’s films is to explain that he is also an installation artist.

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The Saddest Music in the World retains the idea of all the impoverished nations of the world competing against each other for favor from the United States, although here the blessed white country is Canada and the competition is held in Winnipeg, labeled as the world capital of sorrow, in the great depression. Isabella Rossellini shines as Lady Helen Port-Huntley, an amputee. The story goes, she was dating Fyodor Kent (David Fox) and had an affair with his son Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) at the same time. As she was giving Chester a blow job in the car, Fyodor appeared on the road, drunk.  Chester swerves to avoid him, crashes the car and one of Helen’s legs becomes trapped under the car.  Fyodor staggers over declaring he is the doctor so he will save his love by removing the crushed leg, right there in the snow. However he is drunk, so he removes the wrong leg. Its no surprise that this problem tears the lovers apart, leaving Chester highly cynical, Fyodor pining for his lost love and obsessed with prosthetic legs and Lady Helen a vicious capitalist Queen bent on global domination. Lady Helen, years later, is holding the competition in order to spread sadness, because when people are sad, they drink more beer. They’re all back together now by way of the competition, Fyodor representing Canada, Chester representing the United States even though he is Canadian and his brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) – who lost his son and subsequently wife – representing Serbia even though he is Canadian. One of the films best jokes is when Fyodor makes Helen a pair of glass legs filled with beer, and she wears them around like a prize. Toss the stunning Maria de Medeiros as Chester’s current lover, who feels guided intuitively by the tapeworm that gnaws at her insides and you have a classic Guy Maddin film.

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None of the characters are at all likeable which helps, because we are called to laugh at their misfortunes – all deserved. However all the actors play their roles with relish, Mark Mckinney particularly seems to be having a great time. Isabella Rossellini is wonderful as Lady Helen. The former Lancome model changes herself from the inside to be sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes both together. Its a wonderful performance, and says a lot about beauty.  Between her and Maria de Medeiros your eyes can ache from so much beauty.  Here is a lovely little article by Maddin in the Guardian about how he first met Isabella Rossellini – its a story as quirky as the couple themselves, hands touching in a dogs mouth. A perfect introduction to Guy Maddin me thinks. And typical of Isabella Rossellini to get it right the first time around.

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