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The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

by on 2010/08/08

Blackly comic, disturbing, beautiful and completely insane, The Saddest Music in the World is almost impossible to describe. In fact, I’m not sure that I can detail the events of this black and white Canadian film, directed by Guy Maddin, without sounding completely insane myself. But here goes…

In 1933, brash, swaggering, wannabe-American Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame) returns to his home town of Winnipeg. In the darkest heart of the Great Depression, Winnipeg has won the dubious honour of being the saddest city in North America. Winnipeg’s very ground is made of “frozen tears.”

Winnipeg beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley (the beautiful Isabelle Rossellini) hatches a plan to sell more beer by challenging musicians far and wide to come up with the world’s most depressing song.

Lady Port-Huntley announces the grand prize for the saddest song is $25,000, and invites all of the saddest nations (Poland, China, Albania, Africa, Mexico and Canada) to square off musically in Winnipeg.  Lady Port-Huntley says of own personal brand identity: “If you are sad and like beer, I am your lady.”

The beer baroness is no stranger to sadness herself, having lost both of her legs in a car accident.  Well, to put it a bit more accurately, Lady Port-Huntley lost one leg in the car accident and the other leg was hacked off mistakenly by blind-drunk Dr. Fyodor Kent (David Fox) wallowing around in a snowbank.

And where would a good plot be without a bizarre love triangle? Lady Port-Huntley had been (somewhat graphically) cheating on the good doctor with his soulless son Chester (McKinney) before the car crash occurred. But wait,  there’s another bizarre love triangle, Chester breezed into Winnipeg with a new girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) who just happens to be Chester’s brother Roderick’s long-lost wife.

Narcissa left her husband Roderick (Ross McMillan) for a life of amnesiac wandering and nymphomania after their young son died. (Puff, puff).

Meanwhile, the doctor, overcome by remorse for his botched snowbank surgery, builds a set of glass legs for the baroness and fills them with beer to win back his lady love. (Yes, I said filled the legs with beer. I did warn you).

As the musical competition rages, we see a Mexican band sing about dead babies, a pygmy band recreate a funeral ritual complete with self-inflicted cuts with knives, and witness a version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sung by the lovely Narcissa with a kickline of heavenly angels.

A word here: de Medeiros has a face that is made for the vintage black and white film stock, and in another time, she might have been one of the great silent film actresses — she with eyes like dinner plates. Her musical numbers provide a pleasant counterpoint for the moments of gore, bloodletting and ahem, the human heart in jar of tears featured so prominently in the rest of the film.

McKinney’s performance is brainy and compelling (I simply can’t dislike McKinney in anything he does). Isabella Rossellini is, as always, fascinating to watch. She’s also one of the bravest actresses I’ve ever seen, and you’ll know why once again (remember Blue Velvet?) when you see this movie.

Did I love this film? No.

Have I ever seen anything like The Saddest Music in the World in my entire life of watching movies? Absolutely not.

Were there moments of complete fascination? Yes, absolutely.

If you want to see something completely and utterly indefinable, seek out The Saddest Music in the World.

But just don’t try to describe the plot around the water cooler.

* * *

Rated R for sexuality and violent images

99 minutes

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