A triumph of style over substance telling a hackneyed Cain-and-Abel story, director Guy Maddin's latest screen oddity dazzles, sputters and ultimately fizzles. It's shot (mostly) in black-and-white; the film stock is by turns faded, fuzzy, grainy gray, Vaseline-lensed or blown out in high contrast; there's a wavering iris effect around the edges, as though one were watching the film through the bottom of a beer bottle. The visual effects and the sheer weirdness of the dialogue are at first so disorienting that it takes a few minutes to get your bearings and pick up the thread of the plot, adapted from a story by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day).
Set in wintry Winnipeg in the '30s (the city, we learn, has been voted the "world capital of sorrow" by the London Times), The Saddest Music in the World tells the story of a lady tycoon - Isabella Rossellini, as brewery owner Lady Port-Huntly, a double amputee in a Blue Velvet-esque blonde wig - who announces a contest to find the country that can produce the aforementioned saddest music in the world. Our hometown competitors are Chester (Mark McKinney), an oily Canadian expatriate who's struck out in America and is looking for a stake here in Winnipeg; his father, Fyodor (David Fox), who's been in love with Lady Port-Huntly for decades, despite having drunkenly sawn her legs off in a wrongheaded rescue attempt after a car wreck; and his other son, Roderick (Ross McMillan), a neurasthenic cellist clad in an enormous black-veiled hat, deep in mourning for his dead son and disappeared wife.
The layers of gratuitous nuttiness don't stop there. Does our legless heroine walk again? Oh, yes: She dances frenetically on new glass legs filled with beer. Does our kooky ingénue (Maria de Medeiros, in a truly charming turn as Chester's mysterious Louise Brooks-clone girlfriend) have a droll peccadillo? Oh, yes: She consults her talking tapeworm before making any important decisions. Do we get references to Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou, to Carl Dreyer's Ordet, to Eraserhead-era David Lynch? Check, check and check.
But shake this snow globe, and after the swirling stops, there's nothing to see. The entire film consists of details, some of which are genuinely funny, some of which fall flat, all of them obscuring the gaping hole of nothing that's central to the movie.
As the musician-contestants pour in from all over the world, tramping across Maddin's artificial winterscape, they trail their national stereotypes - Mexicans in sombreros, etc. - daring the audience to laugh (you're a racist) or frown (you're a prig). The idea that poor nations are forced to perform in order to get financial assistance from the international community, in effect singing for their suppers, could have been explored further, but it's too real for Maddin. Saddest Music concerns itself with individual human peculiarity; it's all about the little picture, not the big picture.
It's undeniably fun to watch the details get progressively zanier (Fyodor in his workshop full of prosthetic legs, Lady Port-Huntly's blindfolded personal orchestra), but fundamentally the script is as hollow as those glass legs. So why all the knowing film-buff references if they're not in service of an actual point? Sweet as it may be, all the eye candy in the world doesn't add up to a meal. My tapeworm told me so.