Judge Adam Arseneau says that if you're sad, and you like beer, then this review is for you.
Love. Politics. Beer.
In the entire history of cinema, it is doubtful that anyone has conceived a film that will diametrically divide people more than Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World. A kaleidoscopic beer-goggled dive into Depression-era Winnipeg—full of legless beer barons, Depression-era Canadian politics, amnesiac nymphomaniacs, and former cast members of The Kids In The Hall all stuffed inside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—it is as unique a cinematic experience as you will find. Put simply, you will either love it passionately, or hate it with every single fiber of your being.
Facts of the Case
The London Times has ranked the city of Winnipeg as the world capital of sorrow during the Great Depression for four years running. In recognition of this dubious honor, the Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), a legless beer baron, hosts a contest to play up the publicity, to find which nation truly has the saddest music in the world. The prize: a cool $25,000 in Depression-era dollars. Countries from all over the world soon start arriving to play until their fingers bleed, hoping to inspire heartache, melodrama, and frozen tears across the beer-stained landscape.
But when Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), "American" businessman extraordinaire, gets wind of the contest, he sets his opportunistic eyes on the prize money, dragging along his amnesic nymphomaniac girlfriend, Narcissa. Beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley is less than thrilled by Chester's arrival, given their…complicated history together. And both the Lady and Chester are less than enthusiastic to see Chester's father and brother, Fyodor and Roderick (AKA "Gavrillo the Great") arriving to compete! Each has a complex relationship with the others, and as the contest continues, a love pentagram of sorts begins to emerge. Soon, forgotten feelings and family laundry take center stage on the contest floor…
"Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass. It's all showbiz."
An expressionist art film with a sarcastic sense of humor, The Saddest Music in the World is one of the strangest movies you will ever see. This I can guarantee, absolutely safe in the knowledge that the statement can never be proven wrong, ever. This is a safe bet for me to make because the main female character has two prosthetic legs made of glass, both filled to the top with beer. See? I win.
Set in a fantastically twisted version of Depression-era Winnipeg, full of all-night beer taverns, hockey games, slanty-angled wooden shacks, and industrial architecture straight out of a German Expressionist film, The Saddest Music in the World is as unique a cinematic vision as they come, a bizarre melding of post-war Canadian melancholy, beer, and just a playful hint of sarcasm.
Quantifying this film into mere words is a difficult feat, partly because the picture has been deliberately crafted to look like a film from the 1920s. Like daguerreotype photography come to life, The Saddest Music in the World is a cinema historian's fantasy come true, full of grainy black and white photography, jerky hand-winding cameras, and pinhole lenses. Often, the illusion is so perfect that it boggles the mind to remember that this is a modern production. Watching the film feels like peering into incredibly antiquated home movies of a world that never actually existed, an apt analogy if you consider that at the heart of the film resides a family drama / comedy / whatever (the key word being "family," at any rate). The contest for the saddest song in the world is simply window-dressing for the emerging interpersonal relationships in the film, and the ultimate showdown is obvious from the first reel.
See if you can keep up with all the drama: Beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley used to be engaged to Fyodor Kent, a Canadian WWI hero and surgeon, but was secretly having affairs with his son, cocky and arrogant Chester, behind the father's back. One day during a secret rendezvous, the Lady begins "distracting" Chester in an entertaining (but vehicularly unsafe) way, and of course, Chester promptly crashes his automobile. Unfortunately, one of the Lady's legs has been horribly damaged in the crash. Panicking, Chester calls for his father. Fyodor, drunk and melancholic, stumbles onto the scene with his medicine bag ready to amputate the mangled leg to save the woman he loves…but in his drunken stupor, starts sawing into the good leg by accident. With horror, Chester tries to stop his father, but it is too late—the damage has been done. The Lady loses both of her legs, and definitely has good reason to hate both father and son. Then, to make matters more complicated, Chester's brother Roderick shows up for the contest dressed all in black, calling himself Gavrillo the Great, who wears a veil as a metaphor for the tragedy of the deaths in Serbia, of all things. Roderick is heartbroken from his recent wife's disappearance after the death of their son, and is taken aback by Chester's presence at the contest—and especially by his girlfriend, Narcissa, who looks strangely familiar…
Splendid, isn't it? This is the worst kind of family drama given center stage, turned onto its head and made playful, entertaining, and whimsical. For all the so-called "sadness" in this film, most of it is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. These hilariously damaged characters are thrust into close proximity with one another and treat one another terribly (almost as badly as they treat themselves). It is wickedly dysfunctional and dark, but definitely more on the "black comedy" side of things than a straight melodramatic bent. We watch this erratic family "unit" searching for the definition of "sadness" in order to win a contest—not so much for the money, not so much to best one another, but rather to completely destroy the family relationships that bind them together. It simply reeks of irony.
As with every other Guy Maddin film I have seen, I have a difficult time taking any of the characters seriously; they almost beg to be ridiculed and laughed at in their preposterousness and over-the-top peculiarities. How else can you respond to a grizzled alcoholic war doctor who constructs prosthetic legs out of glass, fills them with beer, and presents them to the woman whose legs he accidentally cut off with a hacksaw? And then, when his advances are spurned in favor of the affections of his son, he falls into a drunken rage and starts guzzling beer straight out of the glass legs themselves? Just like your typical family reunion, no doubt. Family is always embarrassing.
But everything in the film takes a back seat to style. Or rather, everything in the film is personified by its style, percolated down and distilled into various nooks and crannies; elements like character relationships, plot, story, and so on are all defined by the film's style, above all else. This movie is style given literal form, come to life like a mad scientist creation, a film completely and utterly defined by its kitsch. No wonder it evokes comparisons to German Expressionist filmmaking—this is a film of pure imagination, assembled from off-angles and daydreams, artistic expression given physical form. It is a world of old-time radio, all-night beer halls, prohibition, sorrow, and absurdity intertwined at the genetic level as to be indistinguishable from one another; a world constructed out of old 8mm camera stock, rickety ancient cameras, antiquated stop motion techniques, pinhole lenses, and absurdly outdated fades all to give it a sense of authenticity—to remind us of the past, a past turned off-kilter by copious amounts of Vaseline smeared on the lens.
Few directors working today can craft such exquisitely detailed universes and bring them to life like Guy Maddin. His work takes auteurism to new and exciting heights, though outside of Canada he remains relatively unknown save for the art-house circuit. His film remains singularly Canadian. Maddin is one of the few culturally unique, modern, and instantly recognizable cinema auteurs to whom Canada can lay claim, although hopefully The Saddest Music in the World will be the film that vaults him onto an international stage.
As bizarre as it feels, situated in Depression-era Winnipeg, the film could never exist in any other city in the world. It simply would not work. And with his thick black eyebrows, dark coat, and manic craze, Gavrillo the Great certainly looks the part of a somnambulist straight out of Dr. Caligari's cabinet, but it would be hard to picture such a character working in any other context. The cast is perfectly assembled: Kids In The Hall funnyman Mark McKinney comes across as a suave and cocky Billy Wilder-type, somewhere between a used car salesman and Dapper Dan. The arrogance and loathing that ooze from his every syllable is magnificently devilish. Isabella Rossellini brings a wonderfully biting performance to the screen as the legless beer baron, her self-loathing and sensuality an intoxicating combination. Plus, she has nice legs. The beauty of this film is how every individual element falls into place seamlessly, like an accidental sculpture made of Lego that improves upon the original instructions by leaps and bounds. It was as if these elements were always meant to be assembled this way.
The best single-line summation I have seen to describe The Saddest Music in the World comes from Roger Ebert, who says the film "plays like satirical nostalgia for a past that never existed." This must be how the early German Expressionist filmmakers felt back in the early part of the century, constructing worlds never before conceived and bringing them to life for the first time, willing into creation entire universes made of shadows, jaunting angles, and dreams. Above all else, despite the film's sorrowful fascination with sadness as a subject matter to be studied and dissected, there is a pervasive sense of amusement throughout the film, from start to finish. One gets the impression that the cast and crew simply having too much fun making the film, but no worries—it came out perfectly.
MGM also came through nicely on this DVD, which is leaps and bounds above the version of The Saddest Music in the World previously released by Canadian company TVA. TVA's version was downright offensive—it had awful PAL to NTSC ghosting and a dreadful full screen transfer. Luckily, MGM came to the rescue. This version is splendid in its magnificence, and gives the film its proper due.
Normally, an excessive amount of grain in a DVD transfer is a bad thing, but in this unique case, the film is presented as intended, veiled behind thick smears of grain, shadow, and what could very well be Vaseline on the lens. This film is a composition of gray tones and fuzzy distortion, and looks quite marvelous and stylish. Certain sequences are in color, usually flashback or fantasy sequences, with palettes deliciously faded like archaic home videos. It is a great-looking presentation of a bizarre-looking film, and as such, it's hard to figure out whether all of the murky grain is intentional, or the result of a bad transfer. Either way, the presentation looks great.
Audio, likewise, is fantastic. The 5.1 surround track swirls up the clink of beer glasses, the cold, biting Manitoba wind, and the quiet sobs of contest losers like a tornado and distributes them evenly between all channels, providing a wonderfully immersive surround experience. Dialogue is always clear, though bass response is minimal (not really that kind of movie, anyway). The score, which is full of lilting strings and sorrowful cellos, is glorious throughout the film, and comes through the channels with substance and definition.
While we could have done a bit better on the extras front (a commentary with Maddin would have been to die for), this DVD still offers a reasonable spread, considering the obscurity of the title. We get two "making-of" documentaries: one covering the film's conception, screenwriting, and production; the other covering cast interviews and casting decisions. Standard stuff, but the featurettes are of good quality, with moderately interesting interview segments from most of the principal cast. We get two trailers stuck irritatingly at the start of the DVD, some theatrical trailers for the film, and as a special bonus to Maddin fans, three of his short films are included. Though they are only three minutes each, they are delightfully playful, often hilarious, and will absolutely tickle the pants off any Guy Maddin fans. Heck, if they had only included "Sissy Boy Slap Party," I would have been happy. Here's hoping this is a trend that comes into fashion—including short films by directors as special features. I would like to see more of that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But is The Saddest Music in the World a good film? Well…one can get so caught up in the spectacle of a film like this that one forgets to ask such simple questions. It is a singularly unique cinematic experience that sweetens with every viewing, but that first time through can be taxing to the patience, especially if you find yourself unprepared for the film's esoteric charm.
Think of The Saddest Music in the World as the long-lost Canadian brother of Moulin Rouge. Both films take extraordinary delight in crafting a manic, over-the-top, heavily romanticized version of a historical time and place, a past distorted by idealism, romanticism, and probably a lot of booze. But where Moulin Rouge takes perverse pleasure in going over-the top in its camera style, its kinetic actions and musical numbers, and color and light, The Saddest Music in the World takes an equally perverse pleasure in muting the experience, dulling it slightly, seeing the frenzy behind the hazy tint of beer-colored goggles. Where one film breaks into song and screams love from the rooftops, the other film plays languid cello solos before water sliding down into a wading pool full of beer (this actually happens). Though both films utilize the same techniques and have the same eclectic mojo working for them, they take thematically different approaches.
A lot of people hated Moulin Rouge. A lot of people will hate The Saddest Music in the World. If you compared the lists, I bet you would find a lot of duplicate names.
The Saddest Music in the World is like that old song that catches your ear that, try as hard as you might, you cannot identify. It is a film makes you nostalgic for a long-forgotten time, back in the day when people were broke, went ice skating at night, sang bittersweet songs and drank incredible amounts of beer. The punch line that Maddin pulls over us, of course, is that this kaleidoscopic world never existed at all. It exists only within this film, like long-lost memories of a time that never was, the ultimate film manipulation over the audience. And the icing on the cake, of course, is that the film pulls it off without us even noticing the sleight-of-hand.
Of course, whether you find the trick funny or not will be entirely up to your tastes. People who will hate this movie will turn it off within ten minutes; anybody that sticks it out longer than that will come away loving it.
"If you're sad, and like beer, I'm your lady."
Ironically, you could say the same thing about this film. Not even guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• Three Short Films by Director Guy Maddin: "A Trip to the Orphanage," "Sissy Boy Slap Party" and "Sombra Dolorosa"
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