The saddest music in the world

Yesterday I watched The saddest music in the world, a strange movie directed by Guy Maddin after an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. During the great depression, a beer baroness of Winnipeg launches the competition of the saddest music in the world. Groups from all around the world compete for the huge cash price: $25’000. As the story unfurls, we realise that the baroness and some of the participants have a tragic common history.

The movie tries to reproduce the surrealistic tone of the times: the depression era Winnipeg is a fantastic city of darkness, graveyards and misery, the movie is rendered in black and white, with light bleeding out of the frame, the house of the father who competes for Canada is both a surrealistic maze and a marvellous workshop. The music contest, done in a fighting style which reminded me of video games is pure genius.

I really liked the story and the set design, but found the quality of the actual movie very irregular. While the general visual style is that of an old black and white movie, the grain of the movie is not stable: some shots seem to be taken from archive images, while other have a finer grain, finally some parts are in saturated colour. If this was meant to be a narrative device, it failed for me, as it broke the immersion. The grainy black and white style reminded me at some times of Dead Man, where it actually helps immersion in the fantastic world.

I had the impression the film texture, and the tint of the black and white movie changed with the characters. Narcissa, played by Maria de Medeiros is rendered in bluish, blurred style that fits well with the general tone of the movie, the beer baroness, played by Isabella Rossellini on the other hand is rendered in finer grained, more realistic style. This gave me impression that she was basically in a different movie. I was also not completely convinced by her acting, which is a shame because her character is central to the story.

The pace of the movie is a bit irregular, I found the middle of the movie a bit slow as it dwells a bit on the characters, I think it could have been quickened. The end is dramatic, as one could have expected, but a bit to predictable for me. Still I found the movie to be full of wonderful ideas, with some really gorgeous visual parts, and quite funny quotes like “No, I’m not an American. I’m a nymphomaniac” and “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass”. In summary, an interesting movie which would have benefitted of a tighter realisation to concentrate its fantasy.

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