Beer Baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini, "Big Night") is up against the Great Depression trying to sell her product. She comes up with a global competition featuring a $25,000 prize that brings entrants from such far-flung places as West Africa, Scotland and Mexico to her home town of Winnipeg. They've all come to get people to quaff the suds by producing "The Saddest Music in the World."
For anyone who has seen a Guy Maddin film before, "Saddest Music" will be instantly recognizable. Shot in Super 8 to achieve the grain of a 1920's relic, Maddin continues his line of pseudo-silent era filmmaking albeit with sound and, this time around, more recognizable stars. As with all Maddin's features, his latest submerges us in a world of his own (and cowriter Kazuo Ishiguro's, "Remains of the Day") delirious making.
Port-Huntly's contest announcement shakes her past out of the rafters. Old lover, washed up Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of The Kids in the Hall), returns to exploit his past relationship for prize money along with Bosnian singer Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, "Pulp Fiction"), who unbeknownst to him, happens to be his brother's wife. His return forces the Baroness to recollect the tragic end of their relationship, when the car he was driving crashed in a snow storm pinning her leg in the wreckage. Turns out she was sneaking around on her acknowledged partner Fyodor (David Fox), Chester's father, who arrives on the scene drunk and proceeds to amputate the wrong leg. Back in the present, Fyodor hopes to win back his lady by representing Canada with the war time ballad "Red Maple Leaves" and presenting her with the beer filled glass gams he's designed for her. Younger son and brother, Roderick, meanwhile, represents Serbia with his son's funeral dirge as he searches for his lost wife.
Thankfully, the soap opera is interrupted by the zanier elements of the titular contest. An obnoxious buzzer announces the beginning and end of each round as two announcers, as funny as Fred Willard's "Best in Show" commentator, name the entrants. For Siam vs. Mexico, we're informed that 'no one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats or twins.” As the Baroness coldly gives thumbs down from her high perch, Roman Colosseum-style, to her former lover, Canada loses its round to Africa and the joyous winners slide down a chute into a large vat of beer. Kent makes his first show-bizzy appearance with Narcissa singing in a swing and beats the Spaniards. Roderick, clad in a black-veiled hat, becomes his brother's chief rival when Serbia bests Scottish bagpipers, but Kent has an ace up his sleeve - the Baroness herself, jubilant atop her new, sparkling legs.
Maddin and his cowriter have come up with some truly hysterical dialogue, but, like all of his films, Maddin's nostalgic whimsy wears out its welcome well before he wraps. The main characters' stories are, frankly, not that interesting, particularly the subplot involving Roderick, who keeps his deceased son's heart in a jar, preserved with his own tears. More interesting is the possible political subtext evidenced by Kent's promise to pay his rivals' way back home if they withdraw - the final U.S. spectacle includes an international backing band bought by American dollars.
The always reliable Rossellini is terrific as the tiara-topped Baroness, who tells her backers “If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady.” She gets right into the spirit of silent era acting, exaggerating facial expressions of greed, power madness and, adorning her new legs, delight (these scenes recall both British songstress Kate Bush's short "The Line, the Cross and the Curve" and double amputee model/athlete Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney's "Cremaster 3"). Kid in the Hall McKinney is one-note venality as Kent. Much better is Madden regular Ross McMillan as the depressive Roderick, despite his unsatisfying storyline. The saucer-eyed, heart-shape-faced Medeiros has just the right look and titillates with her amnesia inspired promiscuity. When asked if she represents Kent's country, she brightly retorts “I’m not an American. I’m a nymphomaniac.”
The black and white film has Maddin's distinctive look, although he chooses garish color for funeral and dream sequences, a bit of photo-negative perversity. A fabulous montage of hands packing, closeups of musical instruments and modes of travel reels in the worlds' contestants to Winnipeg. The music is a weird assemblage of global mourning, some of which does not sound sad at all.
"The Saddest Music in the World" should delight Maddin's fans and maybe even gain him some new ones, but it will hardly catapult him from the rarified niche he has created for himself.
Robin did not see this film.
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