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The Saddest Music in the World


‘…the gallery of bizarre characters involved in the competition make Maddin’s film compulsive viewing…’

I had that Guy Maddin in the back of my car once; I’d just completed a Q & A with the Canadian film director, and offered to drive him across town to his next gig. He’s probably best known for films like My Winnipeg and Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but it was Eisenstein that we were talking about while we sat at the traffic lights; Maddin made a claim for including the famous Russian film The Battleship Potemkin in a proposed season of classics of gay cinema, and when I not-unreasonably demurred, he claimed that the sheer number of sailor suits should make it an automatic choice.

Maddin has a fairly unique vision of his own cinema. Inspired by a script written by the august Kazuro Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled and the recent screenplay for Living, Madden threw out almost everything but the title and the concept, and created a unique drama set in Great Depression Winnipeg. A motely crew of contestants arrive to compete for a unique title; who is capable of making the saddest music in the world and winning a desperately needed financial windfall?

That high-concept doesn’t sound like much fun for thrill-seekers, not does the promise of black and white photography with a few colour flourishes, but the gallery of bizarre characters involved in the competition make Maddin’s film compulsive viewing, particularly Isabella Rossellini, who plays contest organizer Lady Helen Port-Huntley. She’s quite literally legless, since both of her legs have been amputated after a sex accident and replaced with glass limbs which can be filled with beer on appropriate occassions; whatever you might think of Maddin’s world view, you can’t accuse him of playing it safe.

That’s only a taste of the surreal wit of Maddin’s film, a maudlin song competition that plays like a tribute to the eccentricity of silent cinema; if you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t seen The Saddest Music In the World. Mark McKinney and Maria de Mederios co-star in a film that’s hard to find these days, but is worth the effort to find. There’s weird and wonderful alternate histories to be written about the past, and Guy Maddin has exactly the unique, personal, imaginative angle required to exhume them.


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  1. I love this film!! It has some of my favourite quotes such as “Listen to the sound of Winnipeg” or “I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac!” Isabella Rossellini’s glass of beer legs are iconic and I love that scene where everybody is singing The Song is You (which goes quite against the concept of the contest lol). Definitely an underrated film that more people need to see. Glad you covered it!

    • Thanks! I’d watched most of Maddin’s work to prepare for doing a Q and A with him, and while he’s clearly besotted with silent films, I think this is one of his most accessible; Glad to hear I’m not the only one who likes this film; it often feels like I am! It’s got legs!

  2. Seems to me the world’s saddest music would be played on the worlds tiniest violin.

    I had Guy in the back of my car once too! Of course, he was tied up in the trunk, but hey, details schetails, amiright? And glad to hear he survived me driving it off a 200ft cliff. That was a bit of good fortune for him I guess…

  3. Doesn’t most of Maddin play like a tribute to the eccentricity of silent cinema, but with a 1930s soundtrack? A lot of it feels like genius, but I can only take it in small doses. This wasn’t a favourite.

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