Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Saddest Music In The World

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

Guy Maddin is one peculiar fellow, and bless him for it. At first glance, his latest film may seem almost mainstream - it's got actors whose names you might recognize (Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney), it's being distributed to non-repatory theaters by IFC films, runs 99 minutes and has something resembling a linear plot - but once it starts, the audience is quickly disabused of that notion. It's immediately subjected to grainy black-and-white film stock, opening credits that could have come from the 1930s, and striking design work and twisted comedy that is pure Maddin.

It's better than much of his previous feature work, at least as much of it as I've seen, in part because Maddin has help. He and frequent collaborator George Toles worked with a script from novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, and the end result is a Guy Maddin film that has memorable dialogue to go with its memorable visuals, and doesn't become a self-indulgent mess. There's a story holding this lunacy together, and characters that arouse some genuine interest.

Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) is a Winnipeg beer-baronness who lost her legs years ago in a tragic accident, and has decided to promote her beer with a contest to find out which country produces the world's saddest music. A local man who has pined for her for a long time will represent Canada, while his son Chester (McKinney), for whom Lady Port-Huntley spurned him, represents America, along with his girlfriend Narcissa, an amnesiac nymphomaniac who claims to be given messages by her tapeworm. Chester's brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) returns home from Europe to represent Serbia, heartsick over the years-ago death of his son and disappearance of his wife. Various other nations send representatives, eager to win the top prize of "twenty-five thousand Depression-era dollars".

There's a wickedness to Maddin's comedy, whether it's transforming Roderick's sorrowful lament into a peppy, upbeat musical number, the deadpan radio commentary on the various musicians, the shots at America (both in terms of how an American number should be large and vulgar and how Chester merrily co-opts the entrants from other countries into becoming part of his show), and the gruesome circumstances under which Lady PH lost her legs (and I'd just told a friend how I think I may have outgrown finding dismemberment funny). Just because this film is made to look 70 years old doesn't mean the filmmakers are trying to make a movie for their grandparents. It's an irreverent comedy which packs its jokes in tight, and is not terribly worried about good taste.

To say, honestly, that this is likely the funniest Canadian black-and-white musical black period romantic comedy likely to grace screens this year is both a recommendation and a warning; it's got a place of honor on my list of films that I love but which I might regret recommending to friends who tend to appreciate the familiar more than the outré in their entertainment. I'll do it anyway, though, becaue you can lose a lot of the adjectives between "funniest" and "comedy" before that sentence comes close to being inaccurate.

No comments: