David Foster Wallace once called Guy Maddin’s pictures “abstruse, mood-lit, slow-moving angst-fests.” It was easy to see why. The maddeningly original Winnipeg director makes movies so bizarre they seem to come not from Manitoba but Mars. Maddin is not a natural storyteller, and while I personally loved Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988) and Careful (1992), I understood why most viewers found them impenetrable — his hermetic images could devour you like a foggy swamp.
Like several of today’s most exciting directors (including Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes and, most influentially, David Lynch), Maddin is fascinated by melodrama — run-amok desire, soul-crunching love, the abattoir of family dysfunction. No one treats such material with more childlike delight than Maddin, who takes our unruliest passions, douses them in irony and antique film style, then gives the whole thing an acid-house twirl. His enjoyably loopy new movie, The Saddest Music in the World — surely the oddest 1930s musical ever made, in or out of the 1930s — begins with a hand job and a talking tapeworm, then ends in fiery apocalypse.
The story takes place in 1933 Winnipeg, a cold, Depression-era city that has supposedly been thrice named the World Capital of Sorrow. Hoping to grab a PR boost from that title when Prohibition ends in the U.S., legless beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) sponsors a competition to determine which country has the world’s saddest music. Top prize is a collection of frozen tears, and $25,000. As if by magic, contestants come pouring into Winnipeg from Mexico, Poland, Siam — from all over the globe, and in their native costumes — to engage in a series of musical sad-offs that end with the winners bombing down a chute into a huge tub of Canadian beer.
At the center of this melodious battle royal are three Winnipegians. Competing for Canada is Fyodor Kent (David Fox), an alcoholic ex-doctor still haunted by World War I and memories of mistakenly amputating the gams of his onetime love, none other than Lady Port-Huntly. The U.S. entry is his faux-American son Chester, a bad-mustachioed rotter who, as played by Mark McKinney, looks like a slicked-up, small-city hoser impersonating James Brolin impersonating Clark Gable. He promises to give the competition a dose of American sex appeal — “sadness with sass and pizzazz.” Where Chester proudly wears his heartlessness on his sleeve, his cello-whiz brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) is so overflowing with grief that he actually carries around a jar containing the heart of his dead son. Returning from his adoptive Serbia to compete under the preposterous moniker Gavrillo the Great, he’s glumly unaware that Chester’s latest lover is actually his long-vanished, amnesiac wife.
Fittingly named Narcissa, the woman in question is played by goofy Maria de Medeiros, familiar as Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in Pulp Fiction, and the closest thing Europe has produced to Betty Boop. Her presence underscores one big difference between The Saddest Music in the World and Maddin’s earlier work — here he could afford to hire decent actors. Working with the titanic budget (for him) of $2.5 million, he gets fine, smirky work from Canadian icon McKinney, one of the original Kids in the Hall, who captures all the tinny cynicism of Chester’s insistence that sadness “is just show business.” And Maddin wins a wonderful turn from the blond-wigged Rossellini. Whether rolling her torso around on a dolly or wiping her mouth after a bout of front-seat fellatio, she’s obviously having a ball. Small wonder. Having put in a lifetime among mad-genius directors (that father! those husbands!), she’s not fazed by a Canadian auteur asking her to play a vampy, double-amputee mogul who announces to the world, “If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady.”
Of course, actors are only a part of the baroque Maddin world, whose most immediately startling feature is its gleefully artificial look: The whole movie seems to take place inside a snow globe. One of The Saddest Music’s constant pleasures is Matthew Davies’ flamboyant, stage-bound production design, whose art-deco sets and streets a-swirl with mock snow play host to the contest’s variegated competitors — all those Mexican mariachis, African drummers and bagpiping Scots. Even as he uses these colorful presences to riff on old musicals — or at least the idea of them — Maddin employs his trademark silent-movie aesthetic with its irises, tinted black-and-white images and gauzy photography. (Cinematographer Luc Montellier must have had to order Vaseline by the tanker.)
While such extravagance is pure Maddin, the movie is based on an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for Remains of the Day. Written during the fall of communism, Ishiguro’s script was a satirical allegory about the capitalist West opening up the East. The whole thing has been radically reworked by Maddin and his longtime collaborator George Toles. No doubt the new script has more good jokes, for as Maddin’s recent book, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings, makes clear, he is one of the most amusingly literate of filmmakers. Nobody this side of the Coen brothers writes stylized dialogue with such painstakingly lunatic precision: “I’m not an American,” Narcissa placidly tells an inquiring stranger. “I’m a nymphomaniac.”
I suspect Ishiguro must be slightly flabbergasted by what’s become of his original idea. For even as it spins a delirious domestic tragedy, The Saddest Music in the World offers a mordant vision of how popular entertainment cheapens the deepest human emotions by turning them into commercial product — much to the baying delight of the contest’s imaginary audience. As a Canadian filmmaker whose work is (to put it mildly) uncommercial, Maddin is acutely aware of how the breezy superficiality of American pop culture, especially Hollywood, has colonized the planet. It’s not for nothing that the sad-music contest builds to a showdown between a Serb’s soulful cello, wrenching misery from every string, and a rousing production of “California, Here I Come,” complete with Indian dancing girls costumed as Eskimos. But this isn’t simple-minded America bashing. Maddin’s portrait of the two Winnipeg brothers — one a wannabe Yankee, the other Old World in his righteous dolefulness — looks suspiciously like a sly metaphor for his country’s ongoing identity crisis. Oh, Canada, so far from God, so near to the United States.
Although Maddin has long been saddled with the off-putting adjective postmodern (I may have even applied it myself), he has, in fact, always sided with older worlds, be it the “primitive” style of silent pictures, the uncanny arcana of fantastical 19th-century German short stories or the scratchy classical recordings that give his work its emotional ballast. For all his irony-laced dialogue, his title isn’t facetious. Maddin genuinely believes in the emotional power of music, be it a vintage recording of Beethoven’s Seventh or a rendition of Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You,” whose corniness here achieves a kind of melancholy eloquence — even as you know the thing is damn silly.
Although The Saddest Music in the World is not Maddin’s most original film — that’s probably the opaque Archangel — it pulls off a tricky feat. It manages to preserve the astonishing fecundity of Maddin’s imagination while telling a (nearly) comprehensible story. This isn’t merely his most accessible movie to date, but another highlight in a four-year run of world-class work: The dazzling short The Heart of the World, a history of movies, love, science and history, all in six minutes; the astonishing dance film Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, the best version of this story since Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; and, upcoming at this June’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the quasi-autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee, a $10,000 tale of sex, guilt — and ice hockey.
Having declared this Maddin’s most accessible movie, I must follow that up with a warning: The Saddest Music in the World is still the weirdest, freest-wheeling, most obsessively inventive motion picture you’ll see this year. Parts are confusing, parts are berserk, parts are exasperatingly slow. But in a world of cookie-cutter movies, Maddin’s movies are like nobody else’s — funny, Romantic, as deliriously overwrought as a drug lord’s wedding. Who else gives you Isabella Rossellini dancing around on hollow glass legs filled with beer? Who makes sure we hear the sloshing of the suds?
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD | Directed by GUY MADDIN Written by MADDIN, KAZUO ISHIGIRO and GEORGE TOLES Produced by NIV FICHMAN, DANIEL IRON and JODY SHAPIRO Released by IFC Films | At Loew’s Beverly Center and Playhouse 7