Cinema Signal:

Re-Search No 10:
Incredibly Strange Films

. "The Saddest Music in the World"

The movie starts off in the style of a dream with impressionistic sets that are obviously stage props, grainy, low resolution black and white images obscured even further by fog or filtration, and stylized dialogue that seems more representational than real. But, about the time you expect the dreamer to awake and the film quality to revert to a slick 35mm normality, it doesn't. If this is a dream, or a vision, or the manifestation of a mind riven by mad storytelling technique, it's all part of the concept.

Which seems to further 2003 as the year of the outlandish fantasy. As Sylvain Chomet's singular vision brought us a work derived purely from an irrepressibly inventive mind with The Triplets of Belleville, here Canadian director Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Fleshpots of Antiquity) works from a co-authored original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) in a manner that combines the story telling and musical vitality of a Topsy-Turvy with the visual imagery out of the German expressionism of F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, The Phantom) but with its own richness of character. I call it, "high concept 8mm." Cinematography is by Luc Montpellier.

It's Winnipeg, Canada, during the Great Depression when people would do just about anything for a loaf of bread. But, even amidst this general destitution and unemployment, there were still The Rich. One of these, beer magnate Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), slightly crazed, somewhat demented (for good reason), this "Queen of the brew" puts on a contest to determine the "saddest music in the world."

Her purse of $25,000 -- a literal fortune for the times -- brings musicians from far and wide and, most significantly, the impresario love of her life since before she lost her legs in an accident cum botch-up, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney). While his close companion is, for the moment, Narcissa (ravishing, unrestrainable Maria de Medeiros, Pulp Fiction), he's not above using Port-Huntley's torch for him as a means to acquire a contest win.

His father Fyodor (David Fox), a doctor, responsible for the surgical screw-up that cost the Baroness her legs, has abandoned his medical career in favor of making up for his disgrace by fashioning a pair of prosthetic legs out of beer-filled glass. She revels in the newfound ability to walk even while she judges the weird but musically accomplished contest.

The competition brings out Chester's brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan), travelling as the Serbian entrant with the stage name, Gavrilo the Great, Europe's Greatest Cello, which he uses to plumb the deepest chords of grief. His inspiration for the emotional bottoming is brother Kent's compliant and passionate lover, Narcissa, whom Roderick claims as his long lost wife.

McKinney is slick as the ever-opportunistic impresario, terrible son and worse brother, putting me in mind of young Orson Welles, in control of the world. He was seen in Toothpaste and played Rex in The Last Days of Disco. Rosselini is in her metier here to a greater extent than I've ever seen her, relishing her vampy, dismembered creation, ignoring the idea of being handicapped. She's on top of this material and runs with it (pun intended) for all the legless momentum the whacky vision affords. And, for that matter, so do all involved.

It's de Medeiros who, when given the script, referred to it as "precarious." That it is. This is material for the fiscally adventurous, appealing to those with a taste for a work by a moviemaking tightrope walker. It might even bring in those who love an interesting, slightly giddy musical, and it should.

IFC Films should be lauded for having the guts and sense of adventure to make this insanely audacious satire. But, they deserve more than a pat on the back. Anyone who respects originality ardently may hope it flushes out a wide audience and some payback for sheer hallucinatory daring.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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A never-before-seen-the-likes-of Isabella Rosselini
as the warped Queen of Beer with a well-motivated desire for sadness

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