The Saddest Music in the World

Critical darling Guy Maddin leaves me cold—again.



All artists look to the past for inspiration. Every so often, one of them gets stuck there. Exhibit A: Guy Maddin, the Canadian director of The Saddest Music in the World, an aggressively regressive black-and-white pastiche of Depression-era melodrama, anti-Americanism, and idiosyncratic imagination.


Starring Isabella Rossellini and adapted from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel by Maddin and his regular co-writer George Toles, The Saddest Music in the World tells the tale of Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini), a Winnipeg beer baroness whose legs were cut off by a drunken doctor after a car accident. To promote her beer, the baroness throws a global contest, offering $25,000 to the musician who can play the saddest music. Meanwhile, Port-Huntley's former lover, a New York producer named Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of TV's The Kids in the Hall), arrives and persuades Port-Huntley to fix the contest. The ensuing action involves amnesia, Serbia, and glass legs filled with beer.


A bizarre story, yet The Saddest Music in the World is the closest Maddin has come to the mainstream in a filmmaking career of nearly twenty years. A single viewing of even one of Maddin's numerous short films is enough to explain why. His best, a frenetic six-minute apocalypse titled The Heart of the World, distills Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the early Soviet montage editing of Sergei Eisenstein, and the faux Christs of Denmark's Carl Dreyer into an admirably compact nugget of film history. Fascinating stuff, but not exactly The Incredibles.


Spread over a feature-length film, Maddin's deliberately anachronistic style has been far less successful. The Saddest Music in the World features the usual stilted acting and Vaseline-smeared lenses meant to give Maddin's films the same look and feel as early sound pictures. The technique generally works, but it's the modern touches that become cloying, specifically Maddin's archness, a blend of Jim Jarmusch's deadpan hipster humor and Quentin Tarantino's relentless "look what I can do" brio.


Therein lies the irony that makes The Saddest Music in the World such a maddeningly unsatisfying film. The Saddest Music in the World fails not because it's archaic, but because it's archaic in form only. It's an analogue of Kill Bill, a film hell-bent on exploring the minutiae of its director's private cinematic obsessions. The saccharine sentimentalism of cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith and Lang's pulp-novel exploits have been replaced by something far less expansive, as if Maddin swallowed entire operas but cared to sing only the minor notes. Beautiful as those may be, they make for awfully repetitive songs.


--Joshua Avram

Back to Film Reviews page