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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.
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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