Not having been familiar with Guy Maddin’s previous work in a career that spans the last 15 years or so, I had no point of reference as the first black-and-white flickers of the reels began, and a vaseline-smeared camera crawled its way into a scene of a couple visiting a quite arresting figure, a fortune-teller in theatrical finery reading futures in a block of clear ice.
The couple turns out to be Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame) and his lover, the singly-named temptress Narcissa, ably played by Maria de Medeiros. We find the two in Winnipeg, Canada, when they hear over the radio in a local pub the announcement of a contest sponsored by the Port-Huntley Brewery through the auspices of its owner, Lady Port-Huntley, a thrillingly bitter woman who is missing both legs.
The film’s visible plot, this contest to find “the saddest music in the world,” is little more than a farce and quickly becomes recognizable as the standard sports team plot, the home team winning its way through the crucial tournament. However, the story is a clever one, commenting with admissibly sophomoric jabs on the commercial possibilities of emotion.
Teams gather from nations around the globe. Two countries are paired off as in a death-match, each given several seconds of performance time ended by a buzzer, and the “saddest music” of each round receives a thumbs-up from Lady Port-Huntley herself, after which the winners are dumped into a giant vat of Port-Huntley ale. The pair of announcers color-commentating each round are glib, adding tart comic overkill in a movie that rarely stops its irony for a beat.
The real heart of the film is in its various love triangles revolving around Kent versus his brother and father who have appeared for the competition. In contrast to Kent, a man whose definition of sadness is “happiness turned on its ass,” the elder Kent and the veiled brother are living ghosts, barren of the slightest hope.
Maddin gradually reveals the complex sadness between Kent’s decadent façade of national tragedy and the brother’s quiet loneliness of personal loss as they compete in successive rounds. Perhaps Kent is the more pathetic, as he selfishly exploits America’s greatest tragedies in grandiose stage routines. Or perhaps it is the brother, whose sadness is deep and real, palpable, and who is attempting some sort of futile redemption through the contest. It is no accident that the two women of desire are extremes of sentiment as well, Narcissa denying the remotest tinge of feeling and Lady Port-Huntley wallowing in every second of regret for her missing gams.
Despite its vacillation between social commentary and frat boy yuks, Maddin leaves us with cryptically simple and memorable images that hold significant weight: a pair of glass legs filled with beer, a premature funeral, the frightening soothsayer, dancers costumed as kayaking Eskimos, a flaming piano melting the permanent blanket of snow. These moments seem to transcend the film’s plot and its characters, both of which seem a little too sadly constructed at times. In The Saddest Music In The World, Guy Maddin has created a weird little movie with a golden heart. Or a golden little movie with a weird heart.
Written by Joel Calahan.