29 May 2004

Review: The Saddest Music in the World (4/5)

The dream logic that makes up The Saddest Music in the World won't be for everyone (we had two people walk out 2/3s into the film), but its surprising and surprisingly unique imagery and keen satirical rhapsodizing on grief should temper any criticisms of quality. It has both a unique vision and the depth to support that vision.

The story:

A beer baroness in depression-era Winnipeg conceives of a contest to boost beer sales before the US lifts prohibition. The saddest music in the world competition brings caricatured representatives from diverse countries to battle it out. Canadian audiences drown their sorrows in beer as they listen to the doleful music of the countries that are paired and eliminated; American audiences listen and wonder at the riches just across their border.

The people:

The baroness (Isabella Rossellini) lost her legs in an automobile accident. The Canadian contestant (David Fox) is the man who loved her, but harbors a deep shame for his involvement in that accident. The carefree American contestant (Mark McKinney) had an affair with Rossellini and is one of Fox's sons. The other son (Ross McMillan) is the moribund contestant from Serbia whose wife left him after their son died. Yes they're related, and yes they represent the other countries.

The movie:

The dream logic of this movie can only be illustrated with examples. However, those examples in isolation will fail to fully express the immersion of mood and the surrealist humor that the movie offers. When McKinney's girlfriend casually comments on the advice that her tapeworm has given her, he accepts it as odd but not out of place. When McMillan faints from the emotion of his performance, beating Scotland, the crowd still honors him as they had the previous winners by sliding him into a giant vat of beer. Unconscious, he goes head-first and must be fished out by his father before he drowns. And, of course, Rossellini wears prosthetic legs made of glass and filled with beer.

The style shares much in common with the style the screenwriter, Kazuo Ishiguro, used in his book The Unconsoled. In that book, a classical pianist arrives in town for a concert and drifts as he is continually interrupted with local characters in absurd and tragic situations.

The sadness in The Saddest Music in the World is the obvious central theme. McKinney's character presents one thesis (to be disputed by other events in the movie) as he attends a funeral to court the rich widow as a backer in his Broadway-style production. Commenting to his girlfriend, he notes the theatrical quality of the griever and of those who watch. The griever must overly express their grief so that it is fully communicated. Similarly, those attending the funeral must overly express their sympathy as a sort of bargain so that their ultimate tragedies will earn equal grief. His cynicism is powerful and loud enough to drown out the sincere and varied sadness of most of the other characters. In the movie, saddness is born of personal tragedy and of interpersonal conflict, but is played out as competition, theater, and international politics.

The images:

Nothing prepared me for the stunning look of this movie. The film is selectively blurry and grainy. It's filmed mostly in black and white, with some jarring, garish color sequences. The sets are sets that make the viewer feel very closed in and help make it feel like a 1933 movie. The tight close-ups add to that feeling of constriction and are used with unexpectedly emotional effect.

The movie offers much emotion and humor within a unique, surreal setting. It is both entertaining and thoughtful.

[ posted by sstrader on 29 May 2004 at 10:57:29 AM in Cinema ]