In the 16 years since he made the freakish Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Winnipeg-based Canadian director Guy Maddin -- whose work can best be called "experimental" -- has become no less strange and no more willing to make a movie that more than a small assembly of cineastes will want to see.
His latest takes place in 1933, with the Depression in full bloom. So in Winnipeg, dubbed "the world capital of sorrow" by the London Times, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), the embittered magnate of a powerful beer company, conducts an international contest to find the saddest music in the world. It's largely a publicity stunt, but this Lady still knows sadness herself: She lost both legs in an automobile accident when her lover, a Canadian war hero, sawed them off in a drunken stupor.
Some years later, her lover's son Chester (Mark McKinney) returns to Canada from New York, where he was a famous producer before Hard Times. Chester talks with the flamboyant empty gusto of a '30s movie character, and he's packing a tasty little nymphomaniac named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). He's also a master of oily, self-centered sang froid -- sadness, he says, is just a phony ploy for sympathy -- and he intends to win the contest with a musical act that's "vulgar, obvious and full of gimmicks."
Finally, there's Chester's brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan), who fled Canada to become a Serbian. He has sensitive skin, eyes and ears beneath his black veil, and he's crippled with grief over the death of his child and the subsequent departure of his wife. He, too, will enter the contest, playing his mewling cello deep from the heart. (This is, you can tell, one dysfunctional Canadian family.)
The contest portion of Saddest Music includes a Mexican chanteuse, African bongo drummers, an Aussie on didgeridoo, and "California Here I Come" played on the Pan flute. But unless you're well-versed in midnight movies, Maddin's demi-camp musical melodrama will probably look and sound unlike anything you've seen: He films in grainy, low-contrast black and white; uses iris shots, oblique angles and quick cuts; and generally recalls the surrealist political cinema of Jean Cocteau, Chris Marker and early Bunuel.
It would takes pages to fully unpack Maddin's flashy semiotics, but in general, he seems to want to deconstruct sentimentality, cultural identity, film narrative, and the Canadian inferiority complex, with American culture especially his playful target. The actors are all outstanding, although I wonder how Maddin explained this all to them or gave them direction. They never wink or blink, and they seem to have complete faith in his ability to turn his quirks into a "movie," if that's even the right word for it.