Movies don’t get stranger than this (I guess unless you’re David Lynch). The Saddest Music in the World is a highly stylistic homage to the films of the 1920s and 1930s. It is directed by Guy Maddin, a Canadian screenwriter and director who is known for recreating the look and style of silent and early sound era films. His films usually contain very bizarre stories and humor and are reminiscent of David Lynch’s work. Maddin has gained a cult reputation in alternative film circles much like Lars Von Trier, whose film, The Five Obstructions, I reviewed recently.

The Saddest Music in the World is set in 1933 during the Great Depression in Winnipeg, Canada. Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rosselini – who was in Lynch’s Blue Velvet), is a rich beer baroness in Canada who decides to hold a contest to find the saddest music in the world. The contest attracts contestants from all over the world as they compete to win the $25,000 prize. Among the contestants are the baroness’ former lover, Chester (Mark McKinney – Kids in the Hall), his current lover, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros – Bruce Willis’ pancake-loving nymph in Pulp Fiction), Chester’s estranged brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan), and the brothers’ father, Duncan (Claude Dorge). This sounds over the top and it is. However, for the kind of movie Maddin has created, I don’t think you can really have any other kind of narrative than one that is completely bizarre and ridiculous.

This film’s plot is not so important as is its style. It is shot mostly in black and white through a snowy, distorted lens that gives the whole film a very surreal vision. The style is meant to resemble the look of the early films of cinema and German Expressionism. The sets are dark, gloomy, and stark. Some parts of the film are grainy looking, which apparently were shot on 8mm film and then blown up to make the images look more grainy. The Saddest Music in the World reminded me of another film that also came out in 2004 that paid an homage to the early films of the era. That film was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which if you have not seen it, I strongly suggest you do so. Both films attempt to evoke the style and manner of the early film era.

The characters, like the characters of the time period, are stilted and one-dimensional. McKinney is deliciously despicable as the amoral Chester, a down-on-his-luck American Broadway producer who’s looking for a way back to success. Medeiros, as the wide-eyed nympho, sort of reprises her character from Pulp Fiction, which I had no problem with as she was one of my favorite characters from Quentin Tarantino’s film. Maddin’s decision to cast her was brilliant because Medeiros resembles the look for actresses of that era (see for example any Charlie Chaplin film to see what I mean). However, the jewel of the film is Rossellini as the beer baroness. She is brilliant, cruel, and domineering. She is the Marlene Dietrich of this film, sexy in a masculine dominatrix sort of way.

All in all, however, for as visually brilliant as this movie is, it is thin on plot and The Saddest Music in the World is a perfect example of style over substance. I don’t enjoy criticizing this film because while it fails, I still cannot help but admire Maddin’s daring and vision as a director. At best, this film is a study in cinematography and style. Its a film for the true film buff, which I consider myself to be, but I tend to value story over style and this film obviously opted to focus primarily on style. What I enjoyed so much about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was that although the director similarly focused on the look of his movie, the narrative was just as important to the director. Of course, Maddin did not intend to make his film for general audiences whereas Sky Captain was intended for them.

As you can clearly tell from my review, The Saddest Music in the World is not meant for everyone. I’m sure most people I know would turn the film off within the first 2 minutes of viewing it. Nevertheless, one cannot help but respect Maddin’s vision and be thankful that such a maverick and truly independent filmmaker can be given opportunities to make these sort of films. With the state of our economy as it is, it is increasingly rare to see such filmmakers’ films brought to the screen and that is a shame.