I will never forget the first time I came across director Guy Maddin’s work. I was at home alone, it was late at night, I was tired and having one final go at zapping through the TV channels before I hoped to gather the strength to carry myself to bed. Suddenly I sat up straight, wide awake, and asked myself (probably out loud): “What’s that?!” It was a film on a highly acclaimed and rarely watched German TV station, and it was identified by my TV magazine as “Lawinen über Tolzbad” (Avalanches over Tolzbad), which sounded like a crappy German or Austrian 1950’s country drama. Except it wasn’t. It was a visually amazing 1990s Canadian film, looking like a German expressionist silent movie with deliberately unreal colors and dialogue added in post-production. The next thing I said to myself: “It’s… beautiful!” And lo and behold (Guy Maddin movies make you talk like that): It was not just beautiful, it also was genuinely funny, and it told an engaging story about incest, sibling rivalry and avalanche prevention. Another glance into my TV magazine revealed the original title as “Careful”, and I remembered reading a review in the printed pages of Film Threat magazine of yesteryear. It had struck me as interesting then, but I figured I would never get a chance to see it. I spent the next years of my life tracking down Maddin’s other work and became a huge fan. So much of a fan that I failed to say something to him when I crossed his paths several times at the 2002 Sitges film festival where he was presenting his ballet adaptation “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary”. He must have thought I really hated his film.
So it’s a good thing that he didn’t appear personally at the 2004 Munich film festival. I could enjoy the German premiere of his latest, “The Saddest Music in the World”, without pressure.
Isabella Rossellini stars as the crippled owner of a Canadian beer brewery in the early 1930s. She conducts a worldwide contest to find “the saddest music in the world”. The winner is promised “25,000 depression era dollars” Her plan: As soon as US prohibition ends, she will make Americans sad and sell them beer. “If you are sad, and you like beer, I am your lady.” (I always wanted to hear Isabella Rosselini say that, and I don’t care about the age difference.) Among the contestants are a father and his two sons, each on different sides of the contest: The father represents Canada, one of the sons is now a struggling musical director in the US, the other one has found a new miserable life as an assassin in Serbia (WWI was his fault). Both the American son and the father were once in love with the brewery owner. When the father, then a doctor with a drinking problem, erroneously amputated both her legs after a car accident, their relationship soured. He now wants to win back her love not only by his sad music, but also with a pair of prosthetic glass legs filled with beer. His son, who is now accompanied by a young singer who might be the missing wife of his Serbian brother, also can’t forget the beer baroness.
Mostly shot in grainy black and white with color just used for flashbacks, dream sequences and the dramatic finale, “The Saddest Music in the World” is pure Guy Maddin. Which means: There is more to it than just the very particular visual style, which might become a tired routine in the hands of a lesser talent. The dialogue is razor-sharp, reminiscent of classic screwball comedies (so a little more modern than the visual inspiration). Despite the silent movie look, the editing is quite quick where appropriate, but there is still a lot to see in every single frame thanks to the excellent set design. I really want those glass legs, not just for the beer. The music contest is divided into rounds just like any other sports event, and it has two hilariously inept commentators just like any other sports event. I’d also like the soundtrack CD, by the way.
All the actors seem to be delighted to play in this positively insane romp, and Guy Maddin knows how to choose them. Isabella Rossellini and Maria de Medeiros, who plays the supposedly Serbian singer (“I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac.”), were intended by God to be shot in glorious black and white. And Mark McKinney, who plays the American son, has all the zest of a Capra leading man.
You may never again experience the rush of seeing your first Guy Maddin movie. But “The Saddest Music in the World” once again proves that the love will never go away. If you like beer, music and movies, this is your film. I’ll drink to that.