A very stylised film by Guy Maddin, the look of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and the inside of snowglobe with a bit of black humour in there as well.
Let’s change up things a bit here and write about a film that’s a) been produced within the last 10-15 years and b) that’s got a sense of humour to it, especially after the last two entries in this Filmklub section have been a bit heavy handed. I actually do have a complex sense of humour (well, at least I think I do) that teeters in the colour “black” quite a bit.
The Saddest Music In The World, which premiered in 2003, is likely the most well-known films by Guy Maddin, a director based out of Winnipeg, Canada. All of his films have a very trademark style, which emulates the old expressionist silent films of the 1920s and pairs them up with a more fantastical, cut-up art school sensibility. I saw the film shortly after it came out and I have to admit I was only vaguely aware of him before that time, and I mainly endeavoured to see the film merely based on the seemingly monumental weight of the film’s title. “What is the saddest music in the world? What an odd title…”
The film is set during the Great Depression in the dead of winter in Winnipeg. Anyone from Canada knows that Winnipeg in the winter can be pretty brutal, dropping down to somber temperatures of -30 or -40°C should it feel like it. And folks who know their history know that this was the time around Prohibition in America as well.
The Winnipeg in this film is very stylised, sort of a cross between the set of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and the inside of snowglobe — the shapes all strange and contorted and the edges of vision all shimmering and hazy. There’s some interspersing of very old stock footage, shooting live action against obvious projected backdrops and an almost classic, expressionist “gothic” sensability about his These are Guy Maddin trademarks that you can find more or less in all of his films.
And what is “the saddest music in the world”? It’s a contest, the main plot device in the film, that is announced by a brewery magnate called Lady Port-Huntley (played by Isabella Rossellini), a stylish middle-aged woman who wears a shiny tiara and happens to have both legs amputated. This contest is to see which country has the saddest music in the world, and also to provide a vehicle to sell lots of Muskeg beer from the brewery that Port-Huntley owns.
The announcement of this contest brings together an estranged family, the Kents, from different parts of the globe. The head of the family, Fyodor, is a Canadian military veteran with two sons in other countries, including his brash, showy son living in America, Chester (played by Mark McKinney from my favourite comedy troupe, Kids In The Hall), and his depressive, black-clothed son living in Serbia, Roderick. All three compete in the contest for the main prize, but also for the affections of Helen, a woman with whom all three have had some relations with.
Maddin has a very unique way of taking the look from that era of film, and all of it hinderances, and moving it into a direction that somehow fits in another time period, by exagerating the features of that look, as well as combining it with a script and storyline that are inherently are more modern and somewhat more like an art-damaged fantasy.
There’s a good number number of one-liners in the script that were humourous and coated in a schmaltzy homage to the films of the golden age, but also uncovered a blackness and despair in the film’s characters and mood:
“If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady.” – Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini)
“I’m not an American, I’m a nympomaniac.” – Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros)
“I always play [piano] on my knees; I have no dignity.” — Fyodor Kent (David Fox)
…and there’s countless others but these are the ones I can recall off the top of my head.
But yes, worth checking out. His newest film Keyhole is next on the list, with Rosselini involved again so I suspect it should be a good one to watch.
Addendum: A track from the album The Outsider In The Mirrors was named after this film.