It's a dark, impoverished and grief-filled world in Winnipeg during the depression, the setting of avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music In The World." The grainy black-and-white cinematography gives the film an otherworldly feeling. The name of the place is real, but nothing else appears to be so, not the story, not the landscape, nor the exaggerated characters.
Based on an original screenplay written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro more than a decade ago, the story about a legless beer heiress who sponsors competition to discover the saddest music in the world is strange and compelling. Isabella Rossellini plays bleach-blond, legless Lady Port-Huntley, a woman rich in her own supply of personal sadness. She wisely observes that sad people drink more beer, and sponsors the contest as a clever sales ploy. Her former lover, smooth talking Chester (Mark McKinney), is a failed Broadway producer recently returned home to his native land, schemes to win--not for his native land, but America. (Nationality is subjective, equally attributable to character traits such as greed, grief, and musical ability.)
Chester has his own, unique grip on sadness; he deems it the flip side to happiness and asserts that any winning number needs high production values. He enlists the help of his new lover, Narcissa, an amnesiac nymphomaniac from Serbia. (Maria de Medeiros's delicate, birdlike face makes her perfect for the role. She is an enigma through the film.) Chester's brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) is perhaps the saddest of them all. Still mourning his dead son and missingwife, he dresses black, including a forbidding top hat, and wears a long beard. In the competition, he represents the people of Serbia, playing a soulful tune on his cello.
The contest drags on. The loud bell rings as if we were witness to a boxing match, the competitors put on their sad shows -- the Africans drum their pain, the Mexican mariachis are melancholic -- and finally, the winners slide down into a big tub of beer. The first bout is almost magical, the second round is slightly less interesting, and by the third, the routine has grown tired in its very cleverness.
What is never dull, however, is watching Isabella Rossellini grapple with the circumstances of her legless life. The former Lancôme model can careen between gorgeous and pathetically ugly, shifting veneers within the same scene. "The Saddest Music In The World" features the most comic amputation scene ever to be imagined, plus a wondrous pair of beer-filled legs.