Homage on the Strange 

Movie: The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World
Rated: NONE
Release Date: 2004-04-30
Cast: David Fox, Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, Ross McMillan
Director: Guy Maddin
Screenwriter: Kazuo Ishiguro, Guy Maddin
Music Score: Jerome Kern
Our Rating: 2.5 stars

A triumph of style over substance telling a hackneyed Cain-and-Abel story, director Guy Maddin's latest screen oddity dazzles, sputters and ultimately fizzles. It's shot (mostly) in black-and-white; the film stock is by turns faded, fuzzy, grainy gray, Vaseline-lensed or blown out in high contrast; there's a wavering iris effect around the edges, as though one were watching the film through the bottom of a beer bottle. The visual effects and the sheer weirdness of the dialogue are at first so disorienting that it takes a few minutes to get your bearings and pick up the thread of the plot, adapted from a story by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day).

Set in wintry Winnipeg in the '30s (the city, we learn, has been voted the "world capital of sorrow" by the London Times), The Saddest Music in the World tells the story of a lady tycoon - Isabella Rossellini, as brewery owner Lady Port-Huntly, a double amputee in a Blue Velvet-esque blonde wig - who announces a contest to find the country that can produce the aforementioned saddest music in the world. Our hometown competitors are Chester (Mark McKinney), an oily Canadian expatriate who's struck out in America and is looking for a stake here in Winnipeg; his father, Fyodor (David Fox), who's been in love with Lady Port-Huntly for decades, despite having drunkenly sawn her legs off in a wrongheaded rescue attempt after a car wreck; and his other son, Roderick (Ross McMillan), a neurasthenic cellist clad in an enormous black-veiled hat, deep in mourning for his dead son and disappeared wife.

The layers of gratuitous nuttiness don't stop there. Does our legless heroine walk again? Oh, yes: She dances frenetically on new glass legs filled with beer. Does our kooky ingénue (Maria de Medeiros, in a truly charming turn as Chester's mysterious Louise Brooks-clone girlfriend) have a droll peccadillo? Oh, yes: She consults her talking tapeworm before making any important decisions. Do we get references to Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou, to Carl Dreyer's Ordet, to Eraserhead-era David Lynch? Check, check and check.

But shake this snow globe, and after the swirling stops, there's nothing to see. The entire film consists of details, some of which are genuinely funny, some of which fall flat, all of them obscuring the gaping hole of nothing that's central to the movie.

As the musician-contestants pour in from all over the world, tramping across Maddin's artificial winterscape, they trail their national stereotypes - Mexicans in sombreros, etc. - daring the audience to laugh (you're a racist) or frown (you're a prig). The idea that poor nations are forced to perform in order to get financial assistance from the international community, in effect singing for their suppers, could have been explored further, but it's too real for Maddin. Saddest Music concerns itself with individual human peculiarity; it's all about the little picture, not the big picture.

It's undeniably fun to watch the details get progressively zanier (Fyodor in his workshop full of prosthetic legs, Lady Port-Huntly's blindfolded personal orchestra), but fundamentally the script is as hollow as those glass legs. So why all the knowing film-buff references if they're not in service of an actual point? Sweet as it may be, all the eye candy in the world doesn't add up to a meal. My tapeworm told me so.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Orlando Weekly works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Central Florida.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Orlando’s true free press free.


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues


© 2020 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation