In the lead up to the 7th Canadian Film Festival in Australia (August 2012), join us as we countdown the Top 100 Canadian Films of the past 30 years. We'll be posting one film a day leading up to Canada Day on July 1st 2012. Do you agree with our team favourites? Let us know your thoughts!
#25 - The Saddest Music in the World
“If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your woman.”
I first saw this at the Sydney Film Festival in 2004, on a tip from an older festival-going friend; it was my first encounter with the black-and-white wintery Winnipeg wonderland of Guy Maddin – and although I can’t say I’m one of his die-hard fans, it was like a whole new world opening up to me. Those moments in the cinema – and life generally – are pretty rare, and so it stuck.
First of all, there’s the sheer audacious indulgence of it; a 100-minute film whose biggest ‘star’ is Isabella Rossellini, delivered in the narrative format of melodrama, the aesthetic format of pioneering filmmakers from the silent era, but with quick-cuts, fragmented action, vaselined lenses, crazed angles and intercuts between a film formats (ranging from 8mm black-and-white to two-tone Melocor). Five minutes in, you feel like you’re Alice, falling down the rabbit-hole of someone else’s memory of a dream, potent with symbols that you can’t help trying to decipher, but many of which are the product of whimsy (I’m looking at you, submarine-streetcar).
Set in snow-bound Winnipeg in 1933, at the height of the great depression, the plot revolves around a competition to find the ‘saddest music in the world’, held by crippled beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini). The key contestants are a soulless Canadian expat-turned-Hollywood-producer called Chester Kent (SNL alum Mark McKinney) and his brand-new moll Narcissa (an ingenue who takes orders from her tapeworm), his tragic alcoholic father Major Kent, and his neurotic expat brother Roderick (who carries his son’s heart in a jar, ‘preserved in his own tears’, in his pocket). The tangled web of romantic betrayals and competing griefs enmeshing these three men and two women is revealed as the competition unfolds; there’s unrequited love, death, a pair of glass legs filled with beer, and a witchy fortune-teller to bookend the fairy-tale.
Narcissa: “Maybe you should keep it simple?”
Chester: “America go simple? That’s a hot one! No – it’s gotta be vulgar and obvious – full of gimmicks! You know – sadness, but with sass and pizazz. They’ll eat it up.”
Maddin has been making films since the mid-‘80s, and this is one of the more accessible – if maddeningly manic for some viewers. It shares, with his extensive body of work, his proclivity and talent for pastiches of early-cinema aesthetics; a sense and appreciation of the tragic matched by a refusal to indulge it (he consistently undercuts tragic scenarios and poetic moments with unbelievable details, hammed up performances, and dialogue both bizarre and hilarious); and thematic preoccupations with death, grief, memory and identity (matched in recent years by a visual style that increasingly evokes the impressionistic patterns of recollection).
Altogether, the effect is challenging (sometimes feeling like a test of cognition and endurance) but mesmerising; Maddin’s gestures are large, but the effect is insidious.
Favourite lines include: “No-one beats the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats or twins,” and “We can’t tell if he’s dead or just very, very sad.”
- Dee Jefferson
“To see this film, to enter the world of Guy Maddin, is to understand how a film can be created entirely by its style, and how its style can create a world that never existed before, and lure us, at first bemused and then astonished, into it.” Roger Ebert
To see the other films in the countdown so far, click here.