DVD Review Of The Saddest Music In The World

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/07


  Guy Maddin is a filmmaker Iíve heard alot of. Not good, not bad, but weird. So, it is no surprise that his hundred minute long 2004 film The Saddest Music In The World is not good, not bad, simply weird. Visually, however, itís a truly brilliant work, with color freely mixing with black and white, on contrived sets that evoke German Expressionism from the 1920s, and with Vaseline smeared on the lenses to give it a softer look. It also has a grainier feel in some sections, and reputedly was shot on 8mm film, then blown up to make it even grainier looking, as if it was just uncovered from some old studioís vault. The only other recent film that Iíve seen that invokes such a different place, time, and worldview was Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, which was also set in the 1930s. However, whereas that film was an homage to the classic serials and set in New York City, and global vista, and shot all on blue screen, this film is set in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, and the world comes to Winnipeg, which has been chosen by the London Times as the world capital of sorrow, four years running.

  Reputedly, the film is based upon a screenplay by the highly regarded novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (most famous for The Remains Of The Day) which Maddin and co-writer George Toles added their own idiosyncratic spin to. The plot is rather thin, and follows a legless and blondly bewigged beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), who decides to capitalize on the impending revocation of Prohibition in America top make a killing. She decides to hold a musical contest to determine the saddest music in the world, and offers a prize of $25,000.

  This brings out a father and his two sons who try to win the prize. We see through flashbacks how the baroness lost her legs, when the drunk doctor father, Fyodor Kent (David Fox- a dead ringer for a younger Darren McGavin), cut off both her legs, after one of the sons, faux stage play producer Chester (Mark McKinney), crashed the car. That son was sleeping with the baroness, and cuckolding the father. He arrives in Winnipeg with his mnemonically challenged lover Narcissa (Maria De Medeiros), who believes fortunetellers because of a telepathic tapeworm in her gut. Fyodor comes to represent Canada in the contest, while Chester represents the USA. His cellist brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) represents Serbia, and is an acclaimed musician whose wife left him after their son died. He is haunted by that and the fact that it was a Serbian who started the Great War (this is 1933- so the term World War One was inapplicable then).

  The different countries face off in a sort of pre-American Idol, and each roundís winner slides down a chute into a beer-filled vat, as envious Prohibited Americans listen on in envy. The baroness chooses the winners, and eventually gets a pair of glass legs from Fyodor, filled with beer. The highlight of the film is when a high note by one of the acts causes the beer-filled glass to crack, and the baroness falls to the ground. If that sounds absurd, so is the whole film. Naturally, things turn out unexpectedly, and the father and Chester, and possibly the baroness, all die (some via murder), while Roderick and Narcissa are reunited (guess why?). This is one of the few films Iíve reviewed, where discussing the end will severely affect the opinions of the film, so suffice to say that the ending is very unexpected, but for its simplicity after a very convoluted plot.

  The DVD shows the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, has an interesting featurette called Teardrops In The Snow: The Making Of The Saddest Music In The World. We learn quite a bit about the film and Maddinís methods, as well as a bit of the story, in the second featurette, The Saddest Characters In The World: The Cast Of The Saddest Music In The World. There is also a theatrical trailer and three short films from early in Maddinís career. None are particularly notable, save for the one where a bunch of semi-naked homo-erotic musclemen do nothing but slap each other. While gay men may be yanking their cranks over the very idea, the rest of us can do naught but yawn.

  Overall, The Saddest Music In The World is one of those films that I am loath to comment too harshly on. This is because while it fails, overall, as a film, one cannot help but admire the daring and vision of a director like Maddin. After all, in this dumbed down cookie cutter world of film put forth by megabucks Hollywood schlockmeisters like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and George Lucas, Maddin can easily and rightly be seen as a hero to arthouse, indy film lovers.

  However, none of that concerns me as a critic. So, I have to say that, despite some razzle-dazzle, and the best of intentions, The Saddest Music In The World ultimately is not a good film. No, itís not a bad film, but one has to wonder what it might have been if the original Ishiguro screenplay had been more faithfully followed. Perhaps then it might have had some of the depth and real inquisitive power that great art has. As it is it is merely a curio. But, occasionally, them things can be damned flashy, canít they?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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