The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World
  • Country of production: Canada
  • Year: 2003
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Guy Maddin
  • Running time: 100 Minutes

The Saddest Music in the World features a competition run by a brewery proprietor, Lady Port-Huntley (ISABELLA ROSSELLINI) in Winnipeg in 1933 during the Great Depression. She knows that sorrow is best drowned in beer and organises a contest to find the saddest music around as a means of promoting her beer in the US as Prohibition ends. Musicians come from all over the world to compete for the huge cash prize.

Among them are two estranged brothers, Chester Kent (MARK McKINNEY), a failed Broadway producer representing the US, and Roderick (ROSS McMILLAN) who, posing incognito and pining for his dead son and lost wife, represents Serbia. Their father, meanwhile, represents Canada and there are hidden connections between the Kent clan and both Lady Port-Huntley and Chester's amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (MARIA DE MEDEIROS).

The knockout competition makes for a bizarre musical ("a cavalcade of misery") with hooters, compères and a theatrical thumbs up or down to the contestants from the self-styled Queen of Beer at the end of each round. The winners celebrate by sliding into a huge vat of beer.

Typically for a GUY MADDIN film, it has been designed to look like a film made in its period setting, so it is suggestive of an early talkie, and it is visually stylish, even surreal, and very tongue-in-cheek. The beer baroness is literally legless, for example, and gets to raise some glasses to herself.

It was adapted from an original screenplay by KAZUO ISHIGURO set in late 1980s London, when perestroika meant western capitalism could break into East European markets.

The madcap happenings on-screen seem to have been reflected in the making of the film. Maria de Medeiros was pregnant during it and her waters actually broke while on the trapeze singing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'. And the actors wear live furs - foxes which were freed from traps then domesticated and are now tame enough to wear as stoles.


The Saddest Music in the World


'While rejecting accusations that he's a mere pasticheur, Maddin resurrects long-abandoned film forms, stirring into the mix with admirably straight-faced conviction German expressionist lighting, Soviet montage, "golden age" Hollywood melodramatics and Busby Berkeley's more fetishistic choreography.'


The Saddest Music in the World has been hailed as 'a true work of film art' (Denis Seguin, Screen International). Its rich mix of styles is certainly inventive and more than one critic resorted to saying that it defies description.

The form of the film evokes the period setting. It's shot primarily in grainy black-and-white, with colour reserved for some garish, pseudo-experimental dream sequences, although some critics thought that the clarity of the soundtrack and modernity of the speech patterns mar the period effect. B-movies from the 1930s are alluded to by the obviously fake, indoor sets and the blurred edges of the frame, which give the film a claustrophobic, slightly surreal feel. The production design is 'a curio that belongs in a snow globe, where the trolley cars scuttle like moles in channels of snow' (Denis Seguin, Screen International).

The picture 'evokes a half-remembered, half-dreamed 1930s B-movie filtered through the bottom of a drained whisky bottle and decades of regret' (Tom Charity, Time Out). Maddin is 'not just an antiquarian but also an uncompromising avant-gardist, delving into a past that never was' (AO Scott, The New York Times).

Silver snowman

Maddin and cinematographer Luc Montpellier's filming make 'the whites shine and the blacks grow increasingly unstable' (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter). The abundance of snow and ice merely accentuate this look. The whole film was shot in a large disused factory in Winnipeg; trucks brought snow in from outside and it was sprinkled with glitter to enhance this glimmering effect.

Yet just like the action of drowning one's sorrows, some critics thought the film ultimately unfulfilling and simply an agreeable distraction, or even an 'indulgence' (James Christopher, The Times). Even then there was generally an 'appreciation for the inventiveness, but a wish that one might be more involved or at least entertained by the stylistic workout' (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter).

Silver-tongued showman

This is not to say that Maddin's ensemble piece comes close to resembling the hollow feeling that silver-tongued showman Chester Kent imparts as he bribes the other contestants to drop out of the contest and join him with a promise of their fares home if he wins. He is 'a spats-sporting, slippery-haired sleazeball' (Michael Brooke, Sight & Sound), who seeks to convey sadness "with sass and pizzazz" and thinks it is "just happiness turned on its ass". His cynical willingness to strike a deal and exploit others' vulnerability is seen to be merely shabby opportunism when set against the commanding negotiating performance of the freshly bereaved banker's widow. She deftly turns the table on his shameless attempt to exploit her care for her daughter and demands payment from him - up front.

"If you're sad, and like beer, I'm your lady"


Sublimely surreal

The film exhibits a fine sense of the absurd, as befits a celebration of sadness, and a musical one at that. 'Like most great musicals... this one slides, with breathtaking ease, from silliness to pathos and freely mixes exquisiteness and absurdity' (AO Scott, The New York Times). One of the Americans listening to a winning song on the radio says, "If I got that lucky, I'd drink till I drowned." Fyodor, meanwhile, plays the piano on his knees "because he has no more dignity". There is some snappy deadpan dialogue, especially from Chester whose seen-it-all-before, sure-fire delivery is reminiscent of a film noir private dick. He aims to provide his own "salt-water dressing" to the proceedings and he describes the other contestants as "foreign onion peelers". While his brother Roderick carries his dead son's heart in a jar filled with his own tears, Chester jokes his heart is "small and slimy". He greets Roderick by asking, "Do you manage to keep yourself sad at all times?"

Acerbic Serbia and sad Siam

Maddin employs two masters of ceremonies to provide a formal view of proceedings, their observations especially effective for their detachment. They refer to the African entrants as "resplendent in their paints and scars" and, when discussing pulling out the Siamese canaries' eyes to make them sing better, remark, "It's all in the details," after pointing out that Siam was previously known only for "dignity, cats and twins". Not that this humour hit the mark with everyone. The screenplay 'falls somewhere between spoof and satire but it's never entirely clear what is being mocked. Old movies? Winnipeg?' (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter)

Sincere satire

Despite the joking and Chester's callous smugness, the film depicts real heartbreak and achieves a genuinely melancholic feel. And its satire is not confined to dramatic conventions but has a point to make about the unscrupulous trading practices of Canada's economic giant of a neighbour.

The cast's spirited performances are suitably exaggerated. Rossellini's imperious performance makes her omnipresent, aided by a distinctive accent, which seems at first to be Dutch. Mark McKinney, 'channelling Groucho Marx via Clark Gable, pulls out all the stops. He tunnels into Chester's cheerful connivance with lip-smacking gusto' and the other performers are exceptional in their believability, given the absurdity that reigns (Denis Seguin, Screen International).

'The film at least looks as though something big - fate, dreams, history - is being played out for us, but ultimately it is a bit stretched at feature-length.' (Antonia Quirke, London Evening Standard). Many critics agreed that it was simply 'a trifle too long' (Martin Hoyle, The Financial Times). For all that, however, it remains an exuberant celebration of cinema and 'the happiest sad-fest imaginable' (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph).


The Saddest Music in the World



A Whitbread Prize for the impeccably Japanese An Artist of the Floating World. A Booker Prize for the impeccably British The Remains of the Day. After only four novels (the other two are A Pale View of Hills and The Unconsoled), the Japanese-born, English-bred writer seems to have attained classic writer status. This is his first original screenplay. The screenplay for The Remains of the Day was, notably, written by fellow multi-nationalist and Booker Prize-winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.



Isabella Fiorella Elettra Giovanna Rossellini has certainly made up for the year she lost when bedridden with a spinal injury as a teenager. Once the face of Lancôme and twice chosen by People magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People In The World, she was married to Martin Scorsese and has dated both David Lynch and Gary Oldman.

As for cinema, among her less happy film credits are roles in Cousins (1989), the ill-considered remake of Cousin Cousine, and the tale of defecting dancers White Nights (1985). However, she has also starred in Peter Weir’s impressive air-crash survival story Fearless (1993), Stanley Tucci’s charming Italian restaurant drama Big Night (1996) and David Lynch’s dark and brilliant Blue Velvet (1986). She has recently been involved in projects for Peter Greenaway and Peter Riegert. She is also, let’s not forget, the daughter of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.



Mark McKinney is best known to his fellow Canadians for the brilliant and bizarre sketch show The Kids in the Hall. Running from 1989 until 1994, it was a springboard for two years on Saturday Night Live and a number of film appearances. Not all of these were successful. One thinks of Saturday Night Live spin-offs A Night at the Roxbury (1998) and The Ladies’ Man (2000), the unfortunate 1999 remake of Neil Simon’s comedy The Out of Towners and Spice World (1997). However, McKinney also appeared in the smart 1998 comedy drama The Last Days of Disco, two well-received Canadian coming-of-age comedies, New Waterford Girl (1999) and Falling Angels (2003), and the title role in the short The Passion of John Ruskin (1994).



To many English-speaking film-goers, Maria de Medeiros will forever be associated with the character of Fabienne, Bruce Willis’ sweet-natured girlfriend in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Anaïs Nin in Phil Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990). However, the Portuguese actress has a long, varied and very international film career. This includes roles in the French-Canadian Le Polygraphe (1997), the Portuguese Porto da Minha Infância (2001), the French La Lectrice (1988) and the wild Spanish-language sex comedy Huevos de Oro (Golden Balls) (1993).



Teacher turned actor David Fox is probably best known as a respected performer on the Toronto theatre circuit. However, he has worked regularly in TV and cinema since 1980. Major films include Richard Attenborough’s misconceived conservationist epic Grey Owl (1999) and the unfortunate spoof 2001: A Space Travesty (2000). On the upside, his supporting role in Canadian romantic drama When Night is Falling (1995) earned him a nomination for a Genie (Canada’s main national film award).



Ross McMillan is no stranger to director Guy Maddin’s world. He not only appeared in Maddin’s Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and short film The Hoyden (1998), but is a regular stage writer and performer in Maddin’s beloved Winnipeg.



If Careful, his 1992 Alpine story of lust repressed for fear of causing an avalanche, was anything to go by, you’d be in for two hours of camp and deranged German expressionism. But it isn’t and you aren’t. However, it does show the former bank clerk and house painter’s penchant for experimenting with a style often reminiscent of the romantic and quirky early days of cinema. And his love of ice-bound settings.

Until now, much of Maddin’s most daring work has been confined to his numerous highly original short films, such as Sissy Boy Slap Party (1995), Fleshpots of Antiquity (2000) and The Heart of the World (2000), which was voted Best Experimental Film of the year by the US National Society Of Film Critics. However, his longer films are by no means conventional. Take for instance the hockey-based, over-the-top psychodrama Cowards Bend the Knee (2003). Or the dreamlike tale of romantic passion and ostrich-farming Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997). Or even his extraordinary no-budget feature debut Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988), in which a grandmother tells tales of ancient Iceland as her daughter dies in a Manitoba hospital.

And the full-length works have even picked up a few awards. The erotic ballet/musical Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002) won an international Emmy, and Archangel (1990), a tale of love in the Russian Arctic during World War One, also won the Best Experimental Film Award.

Rock videos and adverts also appear on the CV of Maddin, who still lives in, works in and is inspired by his, often very cold, birthplace, Winnipeg.


The Saddest Music in the World

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