The Saddest Music in the World

dir. Maddin

Opens Fri May 14

Cinema 21

This is one hell of a film--or so it insists. From the very beginning it assaults its audience with the assertion that it is arty, deep, and important. This is first presented by the film's look--dark, grainy black-and-white that's purposely smeared, so that the edges of every scene and figure are blurred and distorted. It's pretty uncomfortable to watch, and the bizarre storyline only exacerbates the disorienting effects. After about 45 minutes, it gets easier to handle, once you've been adapted to the cold, bizarre world of the characters.

Set in Winnipeg during the Great Depression, the film is about a wealthy beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) who throws a radio contest to see which country produces the saddest music in the world (and to sell beer to the depressed masses, especially the Americans terrorized by prohibition). Representatives from all over the globe come to face off, tournament-style. Curiously, most of the music in this film is quickly cut short, squandering an opportunity to showcase a limitless range of powerful styles. Also, curiously, most of the music really doesn't seem all that sad.

There is a melodrama embedded in the story, concerning love triangles within the same family, death, amputation, and hypochondria. At times, this melodrama is clever and funny, but it also seems excruciatingly glib. It can be frustrating to try and determine whether the film is making a serious point or just pluming its arty feathers in your face.

On the other hand, the film is pretty original, and its story is remarkable, if inhospitable (there is a stabbing scene at the end that involves glass prosthetic legs--filled with beer). The acting in the film is also remarkable, and although none of the characters are very likeable, their portrayals are satisfyingly vivid.

Regardless of its flaws, you should see this film. Even if you dislike it, it will most assuredly evoke an opinion, and tell you something about your tastes. Perhaps all its stylistic bells and whistles are simply hoopla around a mediocre film, but it demands attention, and will get it.