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It's the winter of 1933 in Winnipeg. In honor of Winnipeg being named the sorrow capital of the world for the Depression era for the fourth year running by the London Times, Lady Helen Port-Huntley, the legless owner of Winnipeg's Port-Huntley Beer, is hosting and judging a contest to see which nation has the saddest music in the world, the winner to take home a $25,000 prize. Seeing as to the current Prohibition in the United States, Lady Port-Huntley has ulterior motives for the contest. Father and son, streetcar conductor Fyodor Kent and New York based musical producer Chester Kent, who both have a past connection to Lady Port-Huntley (Fyodor, a WWI veteran and former doctor, has fashioned for her an unusual pair of artificial legs apropos to her business), want to represent Canada and the United States respectively in the contest. Despite Lady Port-Huntley's hatred for the Kent's, she does allow them to do so if only to advance her own priorities. As the contest takes place, the ... Written by
one of a kind: a romantic comedy about the darkest and most tragic things known to man + beer and music
Guy Maddin is a master in at least one respect: he knows how to use 8mm film. Very few filmmakers attempt to use it at the length he does, or to such seemingly limitless invention, and all the while he has in mind an aesthetic somewhere in the middle of an expressionist silent film director and someone looking to break a little ground with a music video. In fact two of his films specifically, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary and Brand Upon the Brain, work better just as they appear to be: stories told in pantomime, without dialog, but also with all of the heavy emotions that come with. The Saddest Music in the World is a sound film, and must be in order to include such music and some occasionally really funny dialog. But its aesthetic is so bizarre and, indeed, eclectic to tastes of modern and pre-WW2 cinema that it has to be seen and heard to be believed.
The premise is that a "Lady" in Winnepeg (Rossellini) is hosting a contest for everyone around the world to come to Winnipeg to sing the saddest songs known anywhere, and the winner will receive 25 grand (in "Depression-Era" money). But there are complications- a devilish entrepreneur (Mark McKinney in a sly and convincing dramatic performance) comes into town to bring back old memories- the legs that Rossellini no longer has due to a horrible accident stacked upon a huge blunder by McKinney's father- and there's other troubles in romantic entanglements (i.e. McKinney's brother sees that Narcissa, played by Medeiros, is with him now and may have a talking tapeworm). There's this and more, plus the brothers' father in his attempt to resolve the situation with glass legs full of, yes, beer, plus the various competitions between countries with their own styles and vibrations and sorrowful melodies (there's even "Africa" at one point).
But a lot of this is, in fact, really crazy. So crazy that it takes a guy as smart and dedicated to his own warped craft like Maddin to make it make any kind of sense. But it does make sense, beautiful sense at times, and it's helped a lot out by the striking acting and the sense of morbid comedy that pops up from time to time (even just the announcers, who have that depression-era sensibility to them are funny). And watching the quixotic montage, the dazzling camera angles that sometimes go by in blinks or feverish moments in the midst of despair, make it all the more worthwhile. If I might not recommend it as overwhelmingly as Brand Upon the Brain it's only for a lesser connection emotionally with the material, of being pulled in inexorably to its conclusion. Nevertheless no one who wants to miss a challenge, take on something just this side of insanity and poetry, owes it to watch this- experience the songs, the romance. 8.5/10
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