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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
To say that Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World" places style over storytelling is perhaps understating the case; let's just say that the wildly creative Canadian filmmaker is dancing a spotlit, swoony waltz with Style under a glittery disco ball, while poor Storytelling mopes behind the punch bowl, waiting for a turn that may never come. I'm not entirely certain exactly what transpires in the course of the film, but it really doesn't matter; watch this movie for its imagination, not its logic.
That said, "Saddest Music" is just a tad disappointing as Maddin's most high-profile release to date, you can't help but hope for something that dazzles the mind as much as the eye. Instead, we'll have to settle for a movie that alternates between exquisite and bizarre, and a story that doesn't unfold so much as burst forth, like beer from a tap. Set in Depression-era Winnipeg and filmed in grainy, silvery black-and-white, "Saddest Music" features as its loveliest sight the face of Isabella Rossellini, here playing a legless beer baroness who sponsors a marketing ploy, er, contest to find the saddest music in the world.
Gangs of sad-music showmen gather in Winnipeg from every melancholy corner of the globe, including Broadway producer and Winnipeg homeboy Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), his amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) and Chester's mournful brother Roderick (Ross McMillan). Old loves are re-kindled, memories recalled, new beer-filled glass legs fitted, and a miserable time is had, more or less, by all. I think.
But never mind all that; just open your eyes and feast them on what Maddin has wrought. Blurry and ever-so-slightly indistinct, "Saddest Music" seems to have been photographed through layers of old glass, like peering through a smudgy window at a world now gone. (Real life seems sharper more real, almost unbearably so after viewing this movie.) It's all artifice the snowflakes are huge and fake, the Deco swirls and fox furs of Rossellini's costumes gleefully over-the-top and there's almost a frenzy to it, as Maddin (with director of photography Luc Montpellier) drops in hints of Technicolor and poses his actors as if they're in some '30s studio dream world.
It doesn't approach the perfection (and startling sense of newness) that Maddin showed in his ballet/horror film "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary," but all the same, you can't quite look away. Someday, some mad millionaire will give Maddin a huge budget and the time to devise a screenplay worthy of his visual imagination; until then, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with Rossellini, saying in her droopy voice, "If you're sad, and you like beer, I'm your lady."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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