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Saddest Music in the World, The
It sounds like a bizarre dream after a night of drinking, or at least a very good hallucination. Instead, it's a list of ingredients that make up one of the best movies of 2004, The Saddest Music in the World.
Isabella Rossellini is Lady Helen Port-Huntley, the baroness in question. She declares the worldwide saddest music contest in order to gain publicity for her planned expansion into the soon-to-be-wet USA. Meanwhile, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), an ex-lover of Port-Huntley, enters into the fray representing America, much to the chagrin of his father (David Fox). Chester's brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan) now lives in Serbia and still mourns the passing of his son, after which his wife left.
The entire film is shot like a 30s film. There's Vaseline on the camera lens to give the shots a dream-like quality, the stock is grainy, color is patchwork and everything is dark – as if to cover up that the entire production was shot in one big soundstage.
It's hard to sum up the appeal of The Saddest Music in the World. Director Guy Maddin has created a world unlike any seen on film before. Supposedly, it is Winnipeg in the early 1930s, but there are no clues to point us toward that expect the early title card. Instead, he lets the pictures tell the story in a way that most filmmakers could not. He does it with such a soft touch, as well; this is not a parody or satire of these older films, but an appreciation or homage. There's a lot of love in the way he tells the story.
The performances give the film an incredible energy. Rossellini is fantastic as Lady Port-Huntley, and is matched by the very underrated McKinney. Both bring a fanatical commitment to the reality of their characters, even in the most unreal circumstances. One of the most important traits of a comedic actor is reverence to the truth; we don't laugh at actors unless they are believable, and that quality can only be achieved by going after a very specific goal (in the case of broad farce, usually a selfish goal, inspired by selfish desire).
Maria de Medeiros also shines in a smaller role as Chester's girlfriend Narcissa, a woman so out of adjustment that she believes she has a psychic tapeworm in her stomach. McMillian and Fox combine well with McKinney to form the horribly dysfunctional Kent gang.
It's very difficult to judge the audio and video quality of a DVD release such as this. Because of its unique look and sound, separating noticeable flaws from the director's artistic vision is tough. That being said, the DVD of The Saddest Music in the World looks and sounds much better than it did when I saw it in the movie theater. Dialogue is easy to make out and the picture shows no signs of artifacts or edge enhancement. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen at 1.85:1 and the soundtrack is Dolby 5.1.
MGM/IFC did well by Saddest Music in the extras department, considering its small box office take. There are two documentaries on the disc, which show how such a unique film came to be. Interviews with Maddin, Rossellini and McKinney are the highlights.
But the stars here are the three Maddin short films: The hilarious "Sissy Boy Slap Party," which is simply four minutes of gay men slapping each other; "A Trip to the Orphanage" and "Sombra Dolorosa." All three appear to have been shot along with The Saddest Music in the World as the same techniques and sets are in play. They are wonderful additions to the film, showcasing the type of humor and storytelling that could make Maddin a household name.
The lone drawback is the lack of director's commentary track. While Maddin is quoted extensively in the documentaries, a seperate track for the full film could have been fascinating.
An absolute hidden gem of a film, The Saddest Music in the World is one of the year's best films. Winning performances, a funny story and a brilliant visual style, along with interesting extras and a high-quality transfer, make this my second-ever DVD to receive DVDTalk's highest rating.