'The Saddest Music' Hits the Right Notes
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C05
Virtually every frame of "The Saddest Music in the World" sings the same tune. It's the old ditty that goes something like this:
Love me, I'm a cult film
I make no sense but I'm so cute
If you don't get it,
You're the brute.
Cole Porter, eat your heart out. Anyway, this Canadian import from director Guy Maddin is pretty much of a piece and if it's your piece, you'll love it, but otherwise you'd be wise to steer clear.
The genre might be described as something like "ironic camp anti-musical musical." It's a small group that might include Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," Herbert Ross's "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." But you also have to throw in the influence of Busby Berkeley and repeated viewings of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Can you imagine such a thing? Of course not, but fortunately Maddin saved you the trouble and not only imagined it but made it.
The year is 1933, the universe is black-and-white, the location is Winnipeg, the season is winter, and the question is, What is the saddest song in the world? And the answer is 25,ooo Depression-era dollars.
That's the amount that the legless beer baroness (how long has it been since you've seen one of those in pictures?) named Lady Port-Huntley is offering to the winner of a worldwide sad-song contest. By the way, Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Ingrid Bergman, plays Lady Port-Huntley and the accidental subtext of the film is her mother's bone-structure playing in black-and-white, recalling what might be the world's saddest song, "As Time Goes By."
But back in the movie, all the countries of the world dispatch troubadours of melancholy to take part, and a good part of the film is campy evocations of cultures trying to out-weep each other with the most pathetic doggerel they can set to their national music. Moreover, the contest is arranged like a round-robin tournament, and director Maddin keeps throwing up subtitles such as "Siam vs. Scotland," conjuring a good laugh each time.
Maddin is nothing if not inventive, so the movie's visual texture -- its probable raison d'etre -- is extremely beguiling. It's ravishing, a journey through a magical realism of the likes that's largely vanished from movies, including imagery so crackly and burnished it feels authentically 80 years or so of age.
The two bruisers in the contest are the United States and Serbia. Except they aren't represented by an authentic American and Bosnian but by two Canadian brothers pretending to those identities. This is the "plot," and it's a wild, outlandish, largely nonsensical spin on the old haunted-family routine. It seems that Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who pretends to be the American, and Roderick (Ross McMillan), who pretends to be Serbian, have much bad blood between them. But there's plenty of bad blood to go around -- the two have extremely bad blood with their dad, Duncan, (Claude Dorge) and with Lady Port-Huntley, who was at one time or another simultaneously involved with each of them.
Well, you figure it out. What "The Saddest Music in the World" has going for it is incredible energy. Maddin, working on what must have been a shoestring budget, conjures up a flickering kaleidoscope of black-and-white images, and the movie is driven forward particularly by McKinney's charisma as he impersonates American can-do spirit with great elan.
I suspect that one would have to be Canadian to get the full measure of in-jokes and puns and allusions in the film, but in all, "The Saddest Music in the World" is not a whole lot like anything you've seen before. Any film where a beer baroness's glass leg (filled with beer) shatters when a high note is struck is okay by me.
The Saddest Music in the World (99 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated and is not objectionable save for an amputation scene.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company