The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World – Guy Maddin

Nationality: Canadian

Year: 2003

Pros:  Quirky and highly original political satire.  Wonderful period-style appearance. Phenomenally imaginative use of music.

Selected Cast:

Lady Helen Port-Huntley Isabella Rossellini
Chester Kent Mark McKinney
Roderick Kent / Gravillo the Great Ross McMillan
Narcissa Maria de Medeiros
Fyodor Kent David Fox
The Saddest Music in the World The Saddest Music in the World

1933.  Amid the doldrums of the great depression, with that craziest of all laws, prohibition, rampant across the border in the US, a contest like no other is announced in Winnipeg by the maverick and literally legless beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley.  The aim: to find the country with the saddest music the world.  The prize: 25,000 depression-era dollars.  The resulting gathering of competing musicians from all over the world provides ample opportunity for gentle and not so gentle satire and some wondrously inventive and surreal Shenanigans. 

The Saddest Music in the World
The Saddest Music in the World

However – there is much more going on here than that.  A tangled romantic cat’s cradle is being woven around both the contest and Lady Port-Huntley herself by a family who has ended up as international as it is possible to be. 

  • The father, Canadian to the core and desperately in love with our beer baroness, somewhat hampered by having once drunkenly sawn off one of her legs (the wrong one) after a road accident.  He plays the piano lying on its back to eliminate dignity and is engaged in trying to make her a new pair of legs out of glass . . . hollow glass that she can fill with her own most triumphant drink. 
  • One son, Chester, who has gone over to the enemy and entered US showmanship, whom Lady Port-Huntley desperately and reluctantly wants, but who is currently more interested in a spaced out nymphomaniac who follows the advice of her tapeworm in lieu of her ‘gut instinct’. 
  • And another son, Roderick, who long ago moved to Belgrade, Serbia, becoming obsessed with the saddest nation in the world (so he insists) and with Gavrilo Princip, who’s single pistol shot in Sarajavo 'started' World War 1 – also loosing a wife and son and generally wallowing in torment. 
The Saddest Music in the World The Saddest Music in the World
The Saddest Music in the World The Saddest Music in the World

All three are descending again on Winnipeg, eyes on the contest, each for their own personal reasons.  Father just wants to win some love and find a suitable moment to hand over those glass legs.  Chester is just interested in the money.  While Roderick plays for Serbia and for his long lost Serbian wife with his austere and tragic cello, as great a contrast as it is possible to imagine.  Glitz and glamour against tragedy and obsession.  There is obviously a recipe here for high odd-ball drama and for Maddin to really revel in his maverick style – and, according to my tapeworm, it’s eminently successful in what it is trying to do.  The period style is captured perfectly and the whole use of music in this film is nothing short of breathtaking. Especially the weird blending and dueling of different world musics is both fascinating and comical – Siamese flute playing up against Mexican guitars, or Serbian cello against Scottish bagpipes for instance.  And – at the very end (a plot inevitable if ever I awaited one) Serbian grief against American showbiz, brother against brother in the final dual. 

The Saddest Music in the World
The Saddest Music in the World The Saddest Music in the World

The satire of America in particular is quite pronounced here.  America is distinctly portrayed as shallow and obsessed with image and razzle dazzle over substance.  Chester’s approach to his entries into the contest are particularly revealing – with nothing whatsoever to contribute himself, he survives through comprehensive poaching of other country’s acts, glossed with a very American glitz - all a not so thinly veiled barb at US creativity and a culture and warning against seeming too proud of itself when it is actually made up of elements from all over the world.  But really, the US is not alone.  Everything here is treated with a gentle wacky mockery – even Canada – and everything is subservient to the wonderful and wonderfully realised sense of period drama.  Most of the film is in black and white, but with some unexpected moments of colour suddenly waking you up out of any Charley Chase style dreaming and reminding that we are dealing with something quite avant guard and post-modernist here.  The resultant mix of old and new – classic style cinema and very modern aesthetic is the films strongest point.  A brilliantly original work.

Will Lady Port-Huntley ever walk on her strange bubbly beer-filled legs?  Will anyone at all get their hands and hearts on whoever they want to get them on?  And who wins the contest?  Well – to even hint at who, or even IF, anyone wins anything at all in this strange period farce would be criminally irresponsible of me!  I will just say that in this gloriously eccentric film nothing is what you expect, its own internal logic is impeccable, and nothing is too strange for this reality.  Who knows – maybe our glitzy American showbiz man might even find out what real sadness is . . .

The Saddest Music in the World

 

 

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