If you’re not sure who Guy Maddin is, you may wonder how The Saddest Music in the World ever got produced. It’s a grainy, black-and-white movie that wishes it were a 1940’s melodrama in some surreal alternate universe. But I think all but the most literal-minded will eventually warm to the wit and style of Maddin. For those who are receptive, The Saddest Music in the World is one of the funniest movies you’ll see this summer.
Crying in Your Beer
The plot involves a Canadian beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), whose latest marketing scheme is a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Through her radio broadcasts across the border, she hopes to create a huge demand among prohibition-weary Americans, and when prohibition ends, they’ll swarm to her product.
While American sales may be Port-Huntley’s goal, the movie is all about the contest. Three Canadian men from the same family vie for the title. Father is a proud nationalist who hopes to represent Canada by playing a Maple Leaf ballad at the piano, on his knees. The eldest son moved to Serbia and became a cellist. After their son died, his wife left him, and now he returns home to represent Serbia.
The youngest son is Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who lives in New York as a sleazy producer. And while he doesn’t have any talent himself, he knows how to buy talent on the cheap and play to a crowd. His crass, maudlin, big-production numbers are designed to wow the crowd and sway the judge. The $25,000 prize is enough to lure him into the contest, and the chance to thaw Lady Port-Huntley in the process is the icing on the cake.
But there’s more to the movie than the plot. There’s also Maddin’s style to contend with. For those looking for a point of reference, some of the more notable Maddinisms are a silent-era style of filmmaking, including iris shots, blurry corners, star filters, black-and-white film stock, and a grainy, dirty look; an appreciation of the art of melodrama; a claustrophobic screen; and in the case of The Saddest Music in the World, an absurdist sense of humor.
Take Port-Huntley for example. The flashback that shows how she lost both her legs is transcendently melodramatic, and although it’s played straight, it’s impossible not to laugh. A devoted man has built for her a pair of glass legs. One might imagine beautiful crystalline objet’s d’art worthy of the woman he loves. But it turns out they’re beer glasses.
The contest itself has some of the funniest surreal moments on film since Being John Malkovich. Musicians from two countries face each other; first one plays as sadly as they can, and when the buzzer sounds, the next country takes its turn. At the double-buzzer, both countries play at the same time, competing for tears from the audience and judge. All the while, two play-by-play announcers comment on the proceedings, a la Best in Show. The winner of each round gets to slide into a vat of beer.
When the comedy is at such a fundamental level, the actors need to play it straight in order for the comedy to come through. If the actors try to be funny themselves, they end up clashing with the underlying comedy and ruining the effect. Only one minor character, the male announcer, seems to be winking at the jokes, and only when he’s on screen does the movie falter.
If The Saddest Music in the World were made badly, you’d say it was “melodramatic” and mean something derogatory, rather than descriptive. But Maddin handles the melodrama with artistic sincerity while still allowing the audience enough distance to laugh at how over-the-top it all is, making for a surprisingly funny movie.