The Saddest Music in the World is not a mainstream film. It will not allow you to lean back in your seat and release your brain from duty till it's time to recall where you parked. For starters, it's shot almost entirely in black-and-white, and it's purposely distressed frames blur at the edges. The atmosphere is dark, crowded, interior -- even the exteriors, obvious sets meant to appear cheesy and false. Images are frequently superimposed upon one another or presented in collage. The surreal gist is of something happening inside somebody else's brain. And every few minutes, somebody says something incomprehensible, as when Narcissa (played by the stunning Maria de Medeiros) refers to a talking "tapeworm" apparently living inside her body that offers reliable advice.
Still, there's plenty to cling to here. Challenge that it is, The Saddest Music actually recalls (and then combines or juxtaposes) the conventions of classic film genres more than it creates something new. It feels familiar -- almost achingly so.
It's 1933 in Winnipeg, a frigid place that's proud to claim the title "World Capital of Sorrow in the Great Depression." Brewery owner Lady Port-Huntley, a blond ice queen played by Isabella Rossellini, announces a contest to determine the saddest music in the world. (Her motivation: to induce even more depression, leading to the consumption of beer.) In pursuit of the $25,000 reward, delegations arrive from all corners of the world to compete with dirges and laments.
Failed Broadway impresario Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), representing the United States, battles both his Canadian father (David Fox) and his estranged brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan). Chester and his father are embroiled in a love triangle with Lady Port-Huntley, who lost both legs to the father's drunkenly misguided surgical saw. Prodigal Roderick, besotted with grief over his own loss, carries his dead son's heart in a jar of his own tears.
For the contest, Chester's father and brother offer up their private, dark lamentations. Chester, on the other hand, does Broadway. The joke is that the perennially chipper American will not sink deeply enough into his own psyche to feel his pain and can therefore represent sadness only with dancing girls and fake snow. Clearly, Maddin has something to say about crass American notions of emotional depth, and if you feel a twinge, you're a sucker. Even Narcissa, who relies on the talking tapeworm for direction, disavows the cheeriness: "I'm not American. I'm a nymphomaniac."
The Saddest Music in the World is not for the short of attention span. It's also so busy being strange that real sorrow (or emotion of any kind) remains elusive, and one leaves more chilled than warmed. On the other hand, it's unique. You may not quite enjoy it, but chances are you won't soon forget it, either.