Upon hearing that I’d seen this movie, a friend of mine asked, “How is Isabella Rossellini in it?” All I could say was that she gave the finest portrayal of a double-amputee beer baroness outfitted with glass-encased, beer-filled legs that I could imagine.
That should clue you in on the level of utter strangeness at work in The Saddest Music in the World. Many movies are said to be “not for everybody,” but this one means it. The film is not like anything else seen on the big screen, except perhaps other movies by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin.
Maddin has a peculiar approach to film: He shoots on 8mm and video to obtain a “degraded” look. This is the first film of his that I’ve seen, and having watched it twice, I still don’t know if I like it — but I can say it’s fascinating.
First of all, the look of the film is unique, to say the least. It looks like nothing that was made after about 1930, like some weird hybrid of a long-lost (and none-too-well preserved) German silent movie and an early Hollywood musical. It even alternates between black-and-white and rather shaky color footage, following the fashion of many early musicals, which reserved the then-expensive Technicolor process for the most fantastical musical numbers.
Aspects of the film deliberately reference old movies. Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) at first resembles something out of Tod Browning’s Freaks, only then, when she’s fixed up with her glass limbs, to resemble Bridget Helm’s robot woman from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Sleazy theatrical entrepreneur Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame) just happens to boast the same name James Cagney did in the 1933 Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley musical, Footlight Parade, and that’s hardly coincidental. Cagney’s Chester Kent is also a theatrical producer, and Saddest Music is set in 1933. The specter of another 1933 opus, the W.C. Fields short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, also hangs heavily over the proceedings.
The story and screenplay smack of outrageous melodrama. The movie opens with Kent and his girlfriend, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, My Life Without Me), visiting a northwoods mystic (Louis Negin, Cowards Bend the Knee) who is decked out in an elk-antler hat. The mystic predicts the obnoxious Kent’s gloomy future with unalloyed, hammy glee, whereupon the film moves to its central plot.
For the fourth year in a row, Winnipeg has been named the “saddest place in the world,” so beer baroness Port-Huntley decides to sponsor a contest to determine just which country can lay claim to the “saddest music in the world.” The prize is “25,000 Depression-era dollars.”
Kent plans on claiming this prize, but his scheme is complicated by his previous relationship with Lady Port-Huntley. Her legs, you see, were amputated — more or less accidentally — by his drunken father (David Fox, The Charnel House) following a car crash. And then there’s the nettlesome question of whether or not Narcissa is really the errant wife of Kent’s brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan, who’s a dead ringer for the young David Hemmings), a self-absorbed depressive.
A good bit of the film is taken up with various peculiar musical acts vying for the prize. For some inexplicable reason, the winners in each round are allowed to slide down a long chute to paddle about in a vat of Port-Huntley’s beer. Sprinkled throughout are fantasy and dream sequences, references to telepathic tapeworms, flashbacks and more deliberately corny dialogue and melodramatic nonsense than can easily be processed.
The film’s certainly entertaining, in a mesmerizing way, but it might be too weird for its own sake. It will most certainly alienate some viewers (and perhaps a lot of them).
Taken as nothing more than a determinedly strange riff on old movies, the film definitely has its pleasures, but I’d hesitate to say that there’s anything very deep here. All the same, for those who are up to it, The Saddest Music in the World is, without question, something completely different. Rated R for some sexuality and violent images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke