- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Independent filmmaker Guy Maddin has brought oddball humorous distinction to his hometown and workplace, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He specializes in the kind of cult movies that actually merit a cult following. An accomplished low-budget stylist with an eccentric sense of humor, he spent a good deal of the 1990s perfecting witty simulations of silent movies of the late 1920s, especially Nordic or Germanic tales of romantic mysticism and supernatural dread.

Mr. Maddin’s latest caprice, “The Saddest Music in the World,” opening today at the Landmark E Street Cinema, ought to be his most accessible romp through the cinematic attic. His stock company is augmented by “names” in a trio of leading roles: Isabella Rossellini as the embittered heroine, a brewery heiress named Helen Port-Huntly; Mark McKinney of the erstwhile “Kids in the Hall” series as her once and returning suitor, a failed but still smug theatrical producer named Chester Kent; and Maria de Medeiros (Anais Nin in “Henry & June”) as Kent’s amnesiac consort, Narcissa, eventually reminded of an earlier attachment to his long-lost brother.

This sibling, Roderick, played by Ross McMillan, is destined to unveil himself and add to the emotional ferment. Their father, Fyodor, played by Maddin standby David Fox, inflames the plot and its indispensable flashbacks even earlier. Formerly a surgeon with a drinking problem, he was passionately devoted to Helen. So much so that he overcompensated when she was severely injured in a car crash and both her legs were amputated.

The “present” is Winnipeg in the bleak winter of 1933, evoked entirely and fancifully in the studio. Lady Port-Huntly proposes to host an international contest to determine the saddest music in the world. Contestants stream to the far north from the far corners of the world, seeking fame and the $25,000 grand prize. Mr. Maddin treats us to selected elimination rounds: Siam vs. Mexico, Africa vs. Canada, Serbia vs. Scotland. A radio color commentator tries to enlarge cultural understanding for a vast audience in the North American prairie: “A Mexican woman is being firm with her dead infant. To Canadian ears, that may sound harsh.”

Helen runs the show despotically, signaling thumbs up for the winning contestants, who plunge into a pool of Muskeg Ale to celebrate. This public spectacle for drowning and/or intensifying her sorrows rekindles an affair with Chester, an unscrupulous competitor who has somehow secured the USA candidacy. (“He may have the stink of America on him, but he’s Canadian, 100 percent” a bystander observes.)

Mr. Maddin, an agile and versatile exponent of dated pictorial schemes, often affects the appearance of a 16mm dupe print while updating his inspirations and conventions to the early 1930s. “Saddest Music” suggests a “lost” movie that could never have existed: the sort of farfetched nonsense that might have resulted if the Marx Brothers had paid court to Marlene Dietrich in a burlesque heartbreaker at Paramount, with Josef von Sternberg handling the torrid interludes and perhaps Busby Berkeley borrowed for the musical ones.

Watching Mr. Maddin trifle with vintage genres is enjoyable. Eventually, he may need to demonstrate that he could also rejuvenate the prototypes he mocks.

***

TITLE: “The Saddest Music in the World”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (Adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, morbid story elements and overtones of sexual perversity)

CREDITS: Directed by Guy Maddin. Screenplay by Mr. Maddin and George Toles, based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cinematography by Luc Montpellier. Production design by Matthew Davies. Costume design by Meg McMillan. Music by Christopher Dedrick.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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