The flamboyantly eccentric exercises of Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin are considered works of genius by his admittedly small group of rabid fans, but this new effort is unlikely to expand their number substantially. “The Saddest Music in the World” is a bit of rarefied madness that proves that Maddin’s films are an acquired taste most of us are unlikely ever to acquire. And to tell the truth, that doesn’t seem much of a loss.
What “Music” demonstrates above all else is Maddin’s love of the extravagant melodrama of old Hollywood and his inclination to resurrect it in a loopy, hallucinatory style reminiscent of loads of experimental efforts wrought by star-eyed film students. The picture, allegedly based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in 1933 Winnipeg, where blonde brewery magnate Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rosellini) decides to sponsor a contest to determine the world’s saddest music–the mood of which will continue depression after Prohibition is lifted and so maintain her empire. Among the contestants who show up are three with past ties to her: Canadian vet Fyodor Kent (David Fox), who represents his native land, and his sons, U.S. rep Chester (Mark McKinney), a Broadway producer accompanied by a luminous beauty called Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), and dour cellist Roderick (Ross McMillan), who claims to represent Serbia and thus bears the national burden for the devastation of the Great War. (Of course, Serbia no longer existed as a nation in 1933–it had been absorbed into Yugoslavia–but no matter.) The interconnections among these characters go far beyond the conventions of even the most overwrought melodrama. Lady Port-Huntly is legless: she was once the romantic interest of both Fyodor, a doctor, and Chester, and when she was injured in an auto crash one wintry night, a drunken Fyodor amputated both her legs rather than just the one trapped under the car. (There are obvious echoes of “Baby Jane” here.) Roderick, meanwhile, is as desolate as he is because after the death of his son–whose heart he carries around in a jar filled with his own tears–his wife abandoned him; and wouldn’t you guess it, she turns out to be the amnesiac Narcissa? These characters rail at and toy with one another over the course of 99 minutes, their largely incomprehensible tugs and twists interrupted at length by weird musical interludes as the contest progresses. The main point here is that the unremittingly shallow and upbeat Chester puts on the sort of keep-your-spirits-up numbers characteristic of his Broadway past, while Roderick croons the same dirge over and over again. Meanwhile Fyodor creates for Lady Port-Huntly a pair of glass legs filled with beer that radically improve her disposition and her dancing ability. But ultimately moroseness and doom will out, because, as the tune repeated incessantly throughout the movie says, “The Song Is You,” and in this case the song is, of course, a sad one.
The floridly outrageous character of the story is matched by Maddin’s presentation of it. With the exception of brief, oversaturated color insertions, “Music” is shot in luminous black-and-white, with the print then distressed and manipulated to look like an old film that’s never been restored, with glaring contrasts, frayed edges, superimpositions and overexposures. (Some may find the effect hypnotic; most will consider it visually exhausting.) Within this visual context the performers are encouraged to overact strenuously, mimicking the style of early talkies. McKinney is all empty bravura and Medeiros shimmering reticence, while Fox and (particularly) McMillan chew the scenery in German expressionist style. As for Rossellini, she looks like something or somebody who’s stepped out of an early Fritz Lang picture, like a fabrication from “Metropolis.” It’s difficult to say whether the awfulness of the result–acting which is, by any objective standard, terrible down the line–is intentional or merely evidence of the actual inability of the cast. To compensate, there is an occasional perversely amusing line of dialogue, as when Narcissa remarks, “I’m not an American–I’m a nymphomaniac,” but they’re few and far between.
To the uninitiated observer, Maddin’s accomplishment in “The Saddest Music in the World” is to have spent great energy and care making what amounts to an ersatz Ed Wood movie. Why is anybody’s guess. What’s really curious is that it will be taken seriously by so many able people–one of the executive producers, for instance, is Atom Egoyan, who’s made some truly remarkable films. In reality, though, it’s an esoteric piece that will be appreciated only by those who are already cult-followers of Maddin’s work. To others it will prove infuriatingly obscure and oddly unpleasant.