Perhaps best known for My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin has been a large part of the Canadian film scene since late ’80s, although his output tends to be in the short film area. His unique style, often mimicking the look and feel of the silent film era, may not always be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s no disputing he creates films that will have audiences talking.
For the return of Essential Canadian Cinema at TFS, writers Sean Kelly and Aren Bergstrom dig into Maddin’s work to look at The Saddest Music in the World. The film, starring Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, David Fox and Ross McMillan, is the story of Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Rossellini), the legless owner of Winnipeg’s Port-Huntley Beer, who wants to hold a contest to see which nation has the saddest music. Three members of the Kent family, father Roderick (McMillan), and sons Chester (McKinney) and Fyodor (Fox), want to take part in the contest, which Lady Helen allows, despite the fact that there is bad blood between her and the Kent family.
Sean: To put it modestly, the films of Guy Maddin can be an acquired taste. Maddin often likes to style his films like they were made in the silent or early sound eras, yet they also have a transgressive edge to them when it comes to the actual content of the film. This is indeed the case with The Saddest Music in the World, which takes place during the Great Depression and focuses on a competition hosted by baroness Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini). At the core of this competition are feuding family members Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), his father Fyodor (David Fox), and brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), who are all representing different nations in the competition, despite all being Canadian.
The Saddest Music in the World is far from Guy Maddin’s first film, since he has been active since the late-1980s, however it is probably one of his more well-known. The film is actually a pretty good starting point for people unfamiliar with what Guy Maddin is about, since it features all the elements that can make people both love and loathe him. Maddin is quite accomplished at making the film look like it was made in the 1930s, however, it also seems that a cohesive narrative is the least of Maddin’s concerns. While not as extreme as some of his other films, Maddin adds some sudden flares of sexuality or violence, which is quite likely to turn off some viewers.
Aren: I definitely second that Guy Maddin is an acquired taste and I’d expect the vast majority of casual filmgoers to hate his films. They’re too deliberately opaque, in both style and content, to attract a normal audience. However, attracting a normal audience is clearly not Maddin’s aim. He’s essentially an avant-garde filmmaker. I think the closest analogue to Maddin within modern art cinema is David Lynch. Like Lynch, Maddin evokes nostalgia in his films, in Maddin’s case hearkening back to the modes of the 1920s and 1930s, while complicating that nostalgia with sex and violence. Both these filmmakers simultaneously idealize and deconstruct the past. It makes them both interesting, even if Maddin’s preoccupations seems much narrower than Lynch’s.
In terms of initial reactions, I certainly enjoyed The Saddest Music in the World, but it’s no My Winnipeg. The opening titles entranced me and I was high on the film during the first 20 minutes or so, when the contest is announced and all the characters non-nonchalantly follow the bizarre rules of this world. However, the film started to lose me as the focus shifted from the competition to the rivalry between these family members: Chester, Fyodor, and Roderick. Most of their conflict plays as straight melodrama, which fits the style, but the increased focus on grotesquerie, often played for pity, tried my patience.
In one scene, we get a flashback to Fyodor (then a practicing doctor) sawing off the wrong leg of Helen, who’s trapped beneath an automobile. It’s graphic (inasmuch as a ’30s-style dismemberment scene can be graphic) and absurd and pitched perfectly between old-style melodrama and feverish black comedy. It’s the sort of thing that makes Maddin so special. But scenes like it grow few and far between as the film progress. Instead, we get scenes of Roderick remembering his missing wife and dead son in Serbia, which relish in psychological torment and bizarre demonstrations of sorrow. In particular, the fixation on Ross McMillan’s face, made up with a preposterous moustache and oily hair perpetually draped across his forward, started to sicken me. It’s an instance where a filmmaker is delighting in a grotesque detail that he clearly loves, but that turns me off from whatever else the film is doing. If the charming strangeness of The Saddest Music in the World requires complete viewer immersion to work its magic, an emphasized detail like Roderick and his grotesque reactions detracts from that immersion.
At least I can always admire Maddin’s formal technique, even if elements of the story fall short. From a purely formal viewpoint, I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of how Maddin uses classical tools and techniques–super 8, black-and-white 16mm, vintage lenses, rear projection, double exposure–to make his films both evoke the past and become strange fantasies of his own imagination.
Sean: Well, I certainly concur that the sawing off of the leg is something that you would usually see in a horror film, rather than a film that is typically classified a comedy. It is interesting that you bring up My Winnipeg, since it is without a doubt Guy Maddin’s most accessible film (and coincidentally the first of his I’ve seen). It says a lot about Guy Maddin’s transgressive nature when the opening scene of The Saddest Music in the World sees Chester getting pleasured under the table while visiting a fortune teller (played by Guy Maddin regular Louis Negin). It almost seems like Guy Maddin’s filmmaking style is just an excuse to make the plot of his films very weird. How else could you get away with Isabella Rossellini having glass legs full of beer that shatter to the sound of screeching violins?
That all said, I will say that I was able to sit through The Saddest Music in the World, despite the visual style being quite jarring at times. The same can’t really be said for some of Maddin’s other films, particularly 2015’s The Forbidden Room, which peaked for me quite early in its 2 hour plus running time. If you were to ask me to describe the story of The Saddest Music in the World to someone, I can probably do so, even though I would skim over all the very weird elements of the film.
It is interesting to note that The Saddest Music in the World is the film of Maddin’s that has received the most awards recognition, even beating out My Winnipeg. The biggest accomplishment for the film was winning the Genie Awards for Costume Design, Editing, and Original Score, with the film also having received a Best Director nomination. In comparison, My Winnipeg only received a Genie nomination for Best Documentary, even though it also received Best Canadian Film Awards from TIFF and various critic groups (including Toronto’s).
What do you think of Guy Maddin’s decision to occasionally change styles and have some scenes in technicolor?
Aren: I always appreciate what Maddin is doing with his technique, even if I’m sometimes lost on his content. His opaque visual style is not what will ever stop me from enjoying his films. In fact, I think they’re one of his greatest strengths. Filmmaking is about conjuring on-screen space that conforms to an interior set of rules and bringing a viewer into that space where the rules appear seamless. Dutch tilts, grainy black-and-white cinematography, and out-of-sync sound recording do a lot to transport the viewer to the very-particular, very-arch world that Maddin is creating.
As for your question, I like Maddin’s use of different formats and colour schemes in this film, but it’s often hard to parse out the motivation for the switches in colour scheme. In some moments, it seems to convey the swelling emotions of the characters, as during Helen’s ending musical number with her glass legs, but in other moments, it seems to come in and out like there’s an error in the print. I think there’s some truth to your statement that his style is an excuse for weirdness. However, I wouldn’t say that he’s interested in outdated technique as a means of telling strange stories, but rather the opposite. He tells bizarre stories that justify his use of experimental techniques. As an avant-garde filmmaker who often produces art installations, Maddin is not interested in film solely as narrative. Thus, we have to take some sort of formalist approach to his work.
That being said, The Saddest Music in the World is obviously telling a story of some sort, and as such, we cannot ignore the narrative entirely. I wonder whether I’d be more enamoured of the film if it jettisoned the story entirely in favour of becoming a pure mood piece, something akin to a Tsai Ming-liang film, perhaps. What do you think? Would you prefer The Saddest Music in the World if it were more of a clear-cut avant-garde piece, or would you have appreciated something more straightforward, similar to My Winnipeg?
Sean: Of the few Guy Maddin films that I have seen, My Winnipeg is definitely my favourite, so I would say that I prefer a straight forward approach. I would also argue that Guy Maddin is probably a filmmaker who is best in small doses. Whether it is shorts like Heart of the World or Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton or the “Final Derriere” segment of The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin’s style is more digestible when you don’t have to watch it for a full 90 minutes. In fact, there are probably individual sequences of The Saddest Music in the World that are quite intriguing, such as the aforementioned climatic musical number.
I think we should talk a bit about Isabella Rossellini’s role in the film, which adds a little name recognition to the film, though some viewers may also know Mark McKinney from his work on Kids in the Hall. The Saddest Music in the World was Rossellini’s first collaboration with Maddin and she would return for his 2005 short documentary My Father is 100 Years Old and 2011’s Keyhole. Do you believe Isabella Rossellini’s involvement with The Saddest Music in the World helps or hinders the film?
Aren: I definitely think she helps the film. Isabella Rossellini is a rare actress who can make the absurd seem emotionally relevant. For instance, her melancholy over the loss of her legs or her genuine glee when she first sees the glass legs filled with beer rings true despite the absurdity of the scenario. She makes Helen’s pain much more touching (and palatable) than Roderick’s insane form of grieving. In fact, Rossellini is the type of actress who seems most at home in films like The Saddest Music in the World. Her voice and ethereal quality make it seem like she’s always acting in a dream state. She’s certainly capable of doing straightforward drama or comedy (things like Rodger Dodger or her guest appearance on 30 Rock), but she’s best in films like Blue Velvet, Enemy, and The Saddest Music in the World where she can work a spell on the audience that fits with the director’s nightmarish visions.
You also mention Mark McKinney, who is the other essential cog here. His mixture of pathetic opportunism and casual arrogance drives the whole plot and fits with Maddin’s own irreverent attitude towards the material. The Saddest Music in the World might have moments of extreme violence and despair, but its tone is amused, even ironic. Maddin doesn’t take the predicaments of these characters all that seriously and neither should we. McKinney understands this and displays an ironic distance from the actions that sets the tone for much of the film. I’m particularly a fan of Chester’s first and last moments here: him visiting the soothsayer while getting pleasured under the table and him playing the piano as the beer hall burns around him. They’re both absurd and shocking moments, but McKinney doesn’t overplay or underplay either. He’s pitched at the right tone. Even if my attention wanders during the middle sections of The Saddest Music in the World, the opening and closing scenes firmly hold my attention, due in no small part to McKinney.
Something we haven’t commented on much yet is the film’s humour. Let’s be clear: this is a comedy. It’s grotesque and absurd and about as far away from a Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow flick as you can get, but The Saddest Music in the World is comedy nonetheless. Some moments are painfully hilarious, such as the aforementioned flashback where Fyodor saws off Helen’s wrong leg. Others are more broad, like the musical face-offs that serve as the main thrust of the competition plot. Did you find The Saddest Music in the World funny?
Sean: I wouldn’t call The Saddest Music in the World laugh out loud funny, but I would say that Guy Maddin gives the film a very absurd sense of humour. For instance, the film starts with Chester being more interested in the sexual pleasure he is receiving from Narcissa than pay any attention to the dire warning being given to him from the fortune teller. Then there are all the tongue-in-cheek references to prohibition, and Canada is portrayed as an “alcohol wonderland,” where they can afford to having swimming pools full of beer, which later plays into the climax with Helen’s beer-filled legs. This plot element really shows Guy Maddin having fun with the historical fact that alcohol was often smuggled into the United States from Canada during the prohibition era.
Is The Saddest Music in the World Essential Canadian Cinema?
Sean: This is actually a bit of a hard decision for me, since I would like to try and separate my personal underwhelmed feelings about the film. Guy Maddin is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most unique filmmakers and The Saddest Music in the World is a film that has all of his weirdness, while also remaining somewhat accessible to audiences. The film is also undoubtedly very Canadian, with its Winnipeg setting and many tongue-in-cheek references to beer. While I’m more likely to personally recommend My Winnipeg to people, I will say that The Saddest Music in the World is indeed Essential Canadian Cinema.
Aren: I agree that it’s particularly hard to determine whether The Saddest Music in the World is Essential Canadian Cinema. If I had to tell a person to watch one Guy Maddin film, I would not hesitate for a second telling them to check out My Winnipeg, but the term essential is not limited to only one film from a director. Despite my own reservations with the film, I do agree that it’s Essential Canadian Cinema. It’s indicative of Maddin’s broader interests and offers a distinctly-Canadian brand of weirdness and cinematic experimentation. Mileage may vary with viewers, but everyone wanting to see the essential works of Canadian cinema should give The Saddest Music in the World a watch.