Director – Guy Maddin, Screenplay – Guy Maddin & George Toles, Story – Kazuo Ishiguro, Producers – Niv Fichman, Daniel Iron & Jody Shapiro, Photography (b&w + tinted and some scenes colour) – Luc Montpellier, Music – Christopher Dedrick, Special Effects Supervisor – Mark Gebel, Production Design – Matthew Davies. Production Company – Rhombus Media/Buffalo Gals Pictures/Ego Films Arts/Ontario Inc/Melancholy Pictures Inc
Mark McKinney (Chester Kent), Isabella Rossellini (Lady Helen Port-Huntley), Ross McMillan (Roderick Kent/Gavrillo the Great), Maria de Madeiros (Narcissa), David Fox (Fyodor Kent)
Winnipeg, Canada, 1933. Lady Helen Port-Huntley, owner of the local Musket Beer brewery, announces a $25,000 prize in a competition to find the saddest music in the world. She is seeking to exploit the American Prohibition and reasons that by making people feel sad they will drink more beer. In town is Broadway producer Chester Kent who stands up to become the American entrant in the competition, seeking the prize money to finance a new musical. However, his father Fyodor, who enters as the Canadian representative, is a former doctor who was once married to Helen. Helen will have nothing to do with Fyodor after he accidentally sawed both of her legs off while drunk and trying to save her from a car crash. At the same time, Chester’s brother Roderick arrives, representing Serbia. The melancholy Roderick pines for his lost wife and has developed a hyper-acuteness of the senses. As the competition gets underway, Fyodor realizes that Chester’s girlfriend Narcissa is actually Roderick’s wife who is suffering from amnesia. At the same, Chester embarks upon an affair with Helen after giving her the gift of a pair of artificial legs made of glass and filled with beer that have been made by Fyodor in an effort to win her back.
Canadian director Guy Maddin has always been a personal favourite. Guy Maddin has made films such as Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989), Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Cowards Bend the Knee, or The Blue Hands (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), My Winnipeg (2007), Keyhole (2011), The Forbidden Room (2015) and The Green Fog (2017). Maddin specialises in a kitsch surrealism. His films are constructed as elaborate homages to lost forms of filmmaking – in particular to silent cinema and German Expressionism – and come written and directed with a kind of deadpan purple prose, all uttered in hysterical straight-face by its cast.
The Saddest Music in the World was Guy Maddin’s biggest budgeted film to date ($3.5 million) – it even came co-produced by Atom Egoyan and the original script idea is from award-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of works that became films like The Remains of the Day (1993) and Never Let Me Go (2010) – and received the most widespread release. It is very much a renaissance of Guy Maddin’s preoccupations – the obsessive fascination with the recreation of silent or early sound cinema – shots are masked out so as to look like a silent movie camera iris, while it looks like Maddin has used the entire Canadian supply of Vaseline to gauze out his lens; the sets recall something of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and the Expressionism of Fritz Lang; there is the contortedly melodramatic plot involving incest, love triangles and a person who has lost their memory (themes that regularly reappear in Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain!).
It is all delivered with the hysterical deadpan banality of a Maddin film – the film’s funniest moments are surely Isabella Rossellini’s rapture at being able to walk and dance again with a pair of prosthetic glass legs filled with beer. And of course there are the weirdly surreal pieces of Maddin-esque dialogue – Maria de Madeiros makes the hilariously cryptic comment early on in the show: “I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac,” and the show commentators deliver lines like: “Nobody can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats or twins.”
On the other hand, The Saddest Music in the World does feel ever so slightly like Guy Maddin is warming over material that we have all sat through before. Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and the same year’s superior Cowards Bend the Knee did the contorted family dramas, incest and love triangle plots and Maddin never enervates the story here with the same kind of surreal melodrama. There are certainly some impressive sets that make Winnipeg look like a desolate shantytown, with its single bus something like a mobilized metallic scorpion – but Maddin has also done these Expressionist sets before. Both Careful and Ice Nymphs do the surreal deadpan melodrama and kitsch Expressionism much more distinctively than The Saddest Music in the World does.
It is certainly a funny film in a very quiet way – Maddin throws in numerous barbs at US-Canadian relationships and Mark McKinney shines as a vulgar Broadway producer. However, what The Saddest Music in the World comes out looking like is Guy Maddin’s most normal film yet – you could almost imagine the same story being conducted by another director as an ordinary drama in straight-face minus the stylistic flourishes. The film itself ranks enjoyably but seems lesser Guy Maddin.