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The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 100 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


In 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, in Winnipeg (“the world's capital of sorrow”), Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), owner of a successful beer-making company, throws an international competition to determine which country's music is the saddest (hoping to turn sadness into brew-swilling profits). Ever-cheery Broadway entrepreneur Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) decides to represent America (even though he is Canadian), helped by his scatty girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), while his gloomy, hypersensitive brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) is there for Serbia, wearing a false moustache and using the stage name Gavrillo the Great. Meanwhile, their father Fyodor (David Fox) has finished constructing the artificial, beer-filled glass limbs which he hopes will make up for an accident years ago involving himself, his beloved Lady Helen and Chester, which left the beer-queen literally legless. Roderick's music is heart-felt, as he grieves for his de ad son and the wife who abandoned him – who is in fact Narcissa, rendered amnesiac with sorrow. Yet Chester is bribing participants from other countries, and has Lady Helen's backing (in exchange for his sexual favours) – and his vulgar, upbeat numbers conceal untold wells of sadness.

Guy Maddin's 'The Saddest Music in the World' is a true original – inventive, full of surprises and relentlessly bizarre. Based on an original England-set script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, but transferred by Maddin to his native Winnipeg, it was filmed in sub-zero temperatures on cheap, outdated equipment to mimic the grainy black-and-white look of a film from the early thirties (apart from the funeral scenes and a dream sequence, which are not colour so much as colorised with paint). It can be enjoyed merely for its visual stylisation and surreal whimsy, but Maddin is also getting to the heart of the relationship between music, memory and personal tragedy, as well as lampooning America's capacity for crass cultural imperialism.

At one point early in the film, Chester declares chirpily that “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass” – and he sets out to prove this by transforming large-scale miseries (American slavery, the wreck of the Lusitania, the San Francisco earthquake and 'the Alaskan kayak tragedy of 1898') into absurdly glitzy song-and-dance extravaganzas. Yet 'The Saddest Music in the World' ultimately suggests that Chester has it the wrong way round, and that no amount of happiness will allow true sadness to be forever disguised, forgotten or fixed. Mark McKinney plays Chester as a priapic showman, half Groucho Marx, half Errol Flynn, whose manic glee and toothy smile might at any moment crack. His character encapsulates the tone of the whole film – hilarious razzle-dazzle pantomime, but suffused with an inescapable melancholy.

Memorably affecting, and also very idiosyncratic, 'The Saddest Music in the World' puts the 'mad' in Maddin.

It's Got: Mediums, sleepwalkers, drunken amputations, amnesia, wonderful expressionist lighting and shadow, temperatures so cold that you can see the actors breath, Maria de Medeiros as a woman who takes advice from a giant tapeworm, a competition whose winners get to slide into a vat of beer, and a radio commentator declaring: "We dont know if hes in a coma, or just very, very sad".

It Needs: Anti-depressant therapy.

DVD Extras Aspect ratio 16x9 (1:1.78); scene selection; full audio commentary by Guy Maddin and Mark McKinney; Cowards Bend the Knee (60min) typically quirky short film by Guy Maddin from 2003; Teardrops in the Snow – the Making of the Saddest Music in the World (22min); three more short films by Guy Maddin - Sissy Boy Slap Party (4min) from 1995, A Trip to the Orphanage’ (4min) from 2004) and Sombra Dolorosa (4min) from 2004; Live in London: A Saddest Music Concert Edition Reviewed: The Saddest Music In The World (Soda Pictures) DVD Extras Rating: 9/10


This memorably melancholic, thoroughly deranged film puts the 'mad' in Guy Maddin.