The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
Directed by Guy Maddin

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World tells the story of the competition between two brothers, Roderick and Chester Kent, and their father Fyodor to win a contest sponsored by a wealthy Winnipeg beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), to discover which country has the world's saddest music. Chester, a slick Broadway producer, represents the United States, Roderick his adopted country of Serbia, and their father the family's native Canada. The conflicts between these three extend beyond the competition, however. Both of the brothers are romantically interested in the same woman, an amnesiac with an advice dispensing tapeworm, and Chester is additionally involved with Lady Port-Huntley, with whom Fyodor is infatuated.

Filmed in occasionally tinted black and white, The Saddest Music in the World is a visually interesting work, although it is not as beautiful as is Maddin's Careful. The sets are all well crafted, from Fyodor's claustrophobic house to the lavish stage productions created by Chester for his entries in the competition. Even the props are delightful. Maddin presents the viewer with such oddities as the heart of Roderick's dead son preserved in a jar with his father's tears and a pair of beer filled glass legs made by Fyodor for Lady Port-Huntley to replace those he himself previously amputated while drunk. These various eccentric visual elements contribute to the film's peculiar charm, imbuing it with a delightful playfulness and giving it the feel of a wonderfully exaggerated melodrama.


This quirky sense of pleasure aroused in the viewer is enhanced by Maddin's skill at imitating the styles of previous eras of film making and radio. He embellishes the movie with a number of allusions to and pastiches of movies, newsreels, and radio broadcasts from the 1920s and 1930s. These references remind the viewer familiar with works from those decades of all the joys specific to them. The two actors playing the reporters covering the song competition on the radio, for example, provide a wonderful parody of the style of narration preferred in the 1930s. They are a delight to listen to, consistently funny, and able to arouse a sense of excitement perhaps not unlike that of a person living in the Great Depression listening to a broadcast describing what must have seemed like a dazzling and exotic spectacle.

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In his merging of elements from musicals, melodramas, song and dance competitions, newsreels, and so on, Maddin has created a work that is more than simply a melange or a parody. The Saddest Music in the World is a unique, well realized film filled with a clever and dark humor.

Review by Keith Allen

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