Some of us are a bit backward in our movie tastes, and not until a year or two ago did I view anything by Canada’s premier avant-garde filmmaker for quite some time, Guy Maddin. I chose for this event what I had been assured is Maddin’s least experimental film. The Saddest Music in the World, though, is strange enough and certainly stylish in the extreme. Next Maddin film, I will be better prepared—that is, if there is a next time.

The Saddest Music in the World is set in Winnipeg in 1933, during the Great Depression. It’s a musical, with a great deal of old song and some flashy hoofing. It’s Maddin’s first musical, and the lead male character, an indefatigably upbeat producer, bears the name, Chester Kent, of a similar character (played by James Cagney) in one of a trio of 1933 Hollywood musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon). The other two are Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) and 42nd Street (Bacon again), the first of which, like Footlight Parade and Maddin’s film, directly addresses the harsh socioeconomic conditions of the day. Indeed, the same year saw the U.S. bringing forth a number of other quintessential Depression films both in theme and context: King Kong (Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper), Gabriel Over the White House (Gregory LaCava), Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! (Lewis Milestone), A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage), Lady for a Day (Frank Capra).

In Maddin’s film, the central female character is Lady Port-Huntley, who owns a brewery. Already rich while others suffer and go hungry and drown their suffering in her beer, Lady Port-Huntley is set to cash in on the anticipated lifting of Prohibition in Canada’s neighbor to the south. Port-Huntley is legless. When she isn’t being carried by a male subordinate who also services her sexually on threat of otherwise losing his paycheck, she rolls around on a wooden board with ball bearings underneath. We learn from one of the flashbacks with which the film is studded how Port-Huntley came to be a double amputee. Before he reinvented himself as a U.S. American, Kent was Canadian, and he and his father, Fyodor, a surgeon, both were in love with the young woman who would eventually become Lady Port-Huntley. One night when the three of them were together, an automobile accident pinned one of Port-Huntley’s legs; typically drunk and, as a result, afflicted with double vision, as well as jealousy and outraged affection, Fyodor sawed off the wrong leg—a scene, be forewarned, Maddin shows us (and enables us to hear) in realistic detail. Of course, he then had to saw off the other leg to unpin her. Throughout this ordeal, Chester pleads with his father, insisting that the surgery is unnecessary and that he can extricate his girlfriend from the wreckage without injury to her. Here we have a comical version—and it is excrutiatingly funny—of the dramatic incident in Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942) that sent poor Ronald Reagan on crutches to the White House. The result for the victim is more tragic in Maddin’s film by far; while Reagan’s Drake overcomes self-pity for having had his legs amputed by a sadistic doctor whose daughter he dated, Lady Port-Huntley, embittered, now feels contempt for the masses whose bellies she fills with beer.

Lady Port-Huntley plans a media event that will allow her to discharge this contempt by manipulating the masses: She will sponsor a contest in which the world’s nations compete for the title of the world’s saddest music. What could be better for her than that people should try to outdo one another in being sad, since sadness will lead people to drink ever more of her soothing, bubbling beer? A pair of commentators describe the contest for radio audiences, and each leg of the contest pits contestants from one nation against contestants from another, with the voting-by-cheer ostensibly done by the stadium audience (the masses) while in fact Port-Huntley herself decides the outcome. The losing nation is eliminated from further competition, while the winning team slides down into a gigantic vat of beer. Chester pops up as a contestant, and he is armed with a unique conviction, that sadness is all about putting on a show, and that the pity this sadness draws in others is equally feigned. Chester Kent, then, is (like so many Cagney characters) a cheerful cynic. Representing the United States, he is determined to win the $25,000 prize that Lady Port-Huntley is offering so that he can reignite his Broadway career, but so is his father, representing Canada, and so is his brother, Roderick, representing Serbia, which Roderick has adopted as his homeland, the nation that triggered the Great War in which the sons’ father fought, and hence the human embodiment of the world’s lingering sorrow over the nine million lives lost in that terrible war—“the war to end all wars.” Roderick, like his tormented father, has even more to be unhappy about. After the death of their son, whose preserved heart he carries around with him in a bottle, Roderick was abandoned by his wife, Narcissa, who is now, he is about to discover, his brother’s allegedly amnesiac and nymphomaniacal girlfriend. (How narcissistic is Narcissa? She converses with her tapeworm.) The boys are on a collision course that puts the Karamazov into their Dad’s being named Fyodor. Meanwhile, Chester is pursuing Lady Port-Huntley again, but mostly to grease an advantage in the contest, and so is his father, a broken man, with whom the Queen of Beer, understandably, has no intention of cozying up. But Port-Huntley’s disposition skyrockets once she is wearing the sheer, sparkling beer-filled glass legs that Fyodor has made for her, which allow her to dance once more and have fun. Once he has lost the contest, leaving Serbia and himself unredeemed, however, Roderick plays his sad cello so piercingly that Lady Port-Huntley’s legs crack and explode underneath her, reducing her again, now inconsolably, to her former stumps. By this time, having taken his place in the grave that had always been meant for him as a World War I combatant, Fyodor is beyond making his beloved another pair of legs. With shards of broken glass from her legs, Lady Port-Huntley stabs Chester’s heart out. Panic in the streets has replaced song and dance.

Maddin and George Coles have adapted an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and undoubtedly made it their own. (Ishiguro had set the action in London in the 1990s.) Maddin’s reputation for making opaque films is inconceivable on the basis of this film, whose meanings are crystal clear. The Saddest Music in the World takes satirical aim at commercialism, showing how capitalism, which Lady Port-Huntley embodies, exploits the misery of the masses to fill its coffers. Moreover, Port-Huntley’s worldwide contest adds a contemporary spin to Maddin’s criticism, targeting globalization. I have no right to denigrate reviewers based on what they’ve written about films I haven’t seen, but at the very least I’m now suspicious about how “impenetrable” they routinely find Maddin’s films, including this latest one. Perhaps consciously or otherwise some critics feign noncomprehension when they wish to avoid addressing certain thorny issues like capitalism’s mechanism and shortcomings. In any case, there isn’t a second of Saddest Music that perplexed this viewer as to Maddin’s meanings.

That said, I cannot embrace this film on a number of grounds. Before enumerating these, I must first concede how dazzling a film Maddin has wrought. For one thing, much of the music, some of which is happy, incidentally, not sad, is great. For another, the beer-filled glass legs constitute a stunning image of Lady Port-Huntley’s renewed emotional footing—the illusion of her revival and redemption and, despite its persistent decadence and predatory nature, of capitalism’s sometimes sunny appearance of transcending the harsh judgments (cruelty, unfairness, support for social injustice, hospitality to war, etc.) leveled against it. Indeed, some of the film’s visual aspects amaze. Maddin and his brilliant cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, have given the film a grainy, hallucinatory black-and-white look that well conveys the chaos of human lives in a socioeconomic, as well as psychological, crucible. Ultimately, their achievement of a black and white that often seems to run riot across the screen is correlative to the idea that capitalism makes competitors of everyone, including those who are members of the same family. Human relationships are undermined and undone.

Maddin and Montpellier have also punctuated their black and white with gorgeous saturated color inserts depicting, initially at least, dreams. Early on, they confine themselves to primary colors and later extend their palette.

But The Saddest Music in the World is not the total visual joy that all this suggests. On the contrary, the film suffers from the same experimental visual overload that afflicted and helped ruin Peter Greenaway’s film of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books (1991). The agitated handheld camera that Maddin applies to his action and mise-en-scène adds to the strenuous and irritating result. All this is quite beyond expressiveness; it’s gratuitous. Dovetailing the visual shortcomings is a human shortcoming. His cold, dry film extends to the masses that Port-Huntley exploits and torments none of the compassion that one would hope that Maddin believes is their due. Maddin seems to hate capitalism more than he cares about humanity, when in fact his concern for humanity should be motivating his rejection of capitalism. The counter-argument to my objection is that the film’s visual style is keyed to the vicious, chaotic nature of Lady Port-Huntley herself and, therefore, the lack of compassion we see and experience is hers, not Maddin’s. I “get” this possibility; but if this is Maddin’s strategy, it backfires for me. Ultimately, “the people” matter nothing in this film, even by ironical indirection. Maddin should not have allowed Port-Huntley to thus take over. He should have insinuated a humane tone to counter the Port-Huntley visual subjectivity. Perhaps he hoped that the deeply affecting music would accomplish this, but it is not enough.

Some of Maddin’s champions—and do keep in mind that, no matter my opinion on the slender basis of a single film, Maddin is one of the world’s most honored and highly regarded filmmakers—dismiss the claim by many that his work highly resembles that of America’s David Lynch. First, let’s state the obvious: Lynch is one of the most brilliant living American filmmakers, and his influence is immense. Almost everyone concedes that both Lynch and Maddin can be exceptionally weird and dreamy. Still, I wish to point out that Isabella Rossellini, who plays Lady Port-Huntley, does so wearing a blonde wig, just as she did in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). To be sure, this is ambiguous; Maddin may not be Lynchifying but only tweaking those who insist on associating his filmmaking with Lynch’s. Nevertheless, the many claims for Maddin’s great originality wobble a bit when one realizes how much of this Maddin film draws upon the other Great Weird One of world cinema, Denmark’s Lars von Trier, whose Europa (1991) seems an especial atmospheric influence on The Saddest Music in the World.

As David Letterman would say: Isabella, Isabella, Isabella! One of the world’s most beauteous women, Rossellini is also one of the world’s greatest actresses. I named her 2002’s best supporting actress for her razor-sharp, realistic work in Dylan Kidd’s hugely enjoyable Roger Dodger. In Maddin’s film she is larger than life and just as terrific—a reminder that, like her mother, Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini can dispense her talent through widely different kinds or styles of acting. (Laurence Olivier could do this; Keanu Reeves can do this.) One must add that Rossellini is looking more and more like her mother as the years pass on. At about the same age as her daughter here, Bergman played Karla Zachanassian in The Visit (Bernhard Wicki, 1964), based on Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomic The Visit of the Old Woman. This, too, is an imperious wealthy character who provides a contest of sorts for the masses, and indeed the play and the film hover above, and float in and out of, Maddin’s film. I will go further: The Saddest Music in the World is a transmutation of the play and the film, although Maddin’s film is closer to the earlier film while Djibril Diop Mambéty’s magnificent Hyenas (1992), from Senegal, is actually closer to Dürrenmatt’s play.

Whether grotesquely bitter or giddily happy, Rossellini’s work for Maddin is in a class by itself. However, his other actors also are good: Mark McKinney as Chester, David Fox as Fyodor, Ross McMillan as Roderick, and Maria de Medeiros, a Calista Flockhart-lookalike, as Narcissa.


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