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The Saddest Music in the World
2004 - 15 - 99 Mins.
Director: Guy Maddin
Producer: Jody Shapiro, Phyllis Laing and Atom Egoyan
Written By: Kazuo Ishiguro and Guy Maddin
Starring: Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Madeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan
Review by: Jennie Kermode

a rose by any other name
Set during the Great Depression of 1933, this potent new offering from Guy Maddin (who famously directed 'Dracula' as ballet) sees beer magnate Lady Port-Huntly summoning musicians from all over the world to Winnipeg to take part in a contest aimed at finding the saddest music in the world. Pairing a study of those who profited from the suffering of others with an examination of personal exploitation, suffering and despair, this is a film with lots of big things to say; yet despite its obsession with melancholy, it's surprisingly funny. It's filmed almost entirely in grainy 'black and white', sometimes blue tinted,
sometimes sepia tinted, to give an impression of period and to suit the type of story it's trying to tell, yet there are bursts of colour from time to time when we come into closer contact with the real world, moving away from characters' fantasies about themselves and their actions.

Several scenes are carefully staged to mimic classic work from early movies - the girl on the swing, the scientist smashing up his laboratory, the half-mad chellist sawing away at his instrument. There's a great sense of affection for early film traditions, and this contributes to the affection which we are able to feel for a bunch of complicated, not entirely likeable characters.

For years, Fyodor has been in love with Lady Port-Huntly, but he has unfortunately alienated her from him, since he drunkenly sawed off both her legs following a car accident. To complicate the situation further, she has long been in love with his son, failed Broadway impresario Chester, though she sensibly distrusts him. Chester, on whom the film centres, denies his capacity to feel any emotion for anybody. He is conducting an affair with the mysterious Serbian Narcissa, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, who is also an object of obsession for his brother, Roderick. The latter is continually in mourning for his dead son, whose heart he carries around in a jar, where it is allegedly preserved by his own tears.

Despite their Canadian origins, these brothers identify, respectively, with America and with Serbia, which countries they represent in the contest. Chester's determination to buoy up sorrow with glamour and pizazz, and his tactic of absorbing anyone available into his melting-pot of creative talent, forms a strong contest to Roderick's sullen determination to go it alone, his music echoing guilt for nine million deaths during the Great War. At the very start, Chester is warned by a fortune teller that unless he acknowledges his own potential for sorrow his life will be a short one. Thereafter, the story unfolds like a fable, with everyone doomed to get exactly what he or she deserves.

In undertaking a project like this, it is essential to have the very best technical people on board, and 'The Saddest Music in the World' is a triumph in this regard. It features some of the finest orchestration to grace the cinema for years, courtesy of composer Christopher Dedrick and the Canadian Film Orchestra. The variety of music is considerable, as assorted teams of different nationalities are pitted against one another to great comic effect; it has simultaneously to underline the shifting moods within the narrative. Complementing this music perfectly are a range of beautifully realised costumes evoking both the period and the cultural variety of competition entrants. Luc Montpellier's ingenious photography, recreating Winnipeg as a magical land of dazzling dancehalls and ever-falling snow, makes the film a visual delight.

'The Saddest Music in the World' may not, with its adventurous design, be a movie with mainstream appeal, but many viewers may find it more entertaining than they expect. Based on an original screenplay by Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, it is taut, witty, and energetic. Despite being old-fashioned, it's as gleefully vulgar as anyone who has much studied the Depression would expect, yet it is also elegant and ambitious. One rarely sees any film as competently made, so it's all the more impressive that this manages to present a satisfying story besides. Highly recommended.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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