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The Saddest Music in the World

Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour/Black & White
Runtime: 99 min
Director: Guy Maddin
Producer: Niv Fichman, Jody Shapiro
Executive Producer: Daniel Iron, Atom Egoyan
Writer: George Toles, Guy Maddin, Kazuo Ishiguro
Cinematographer: Luc Montpellier
Editor: David Wharnsby
Sound: Russ Dyck, David McCallum
Music: Christopher Dedrick
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, Ross McMillan, David Fox
Production Company: Rhombus Media, Buffalo Gal Pictures Inc.

It is 1933, the height of the Great Depression. Winnipeg-based beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) announces a global competition to determine the saddest music in the world in the hopes of creating a nation of tearful beer-drinkers and boosting sales. Musicians from every corner of the globe flock to wintry Winnipeg – the world capital of sorrow – to vie for the colossal twenty-five-thousand-dollar prize.

Against this droll backdrop, the members of the Kent family confront their secret past while locked in a rivalry of operatic proportions. Chester (Mark McKinney), a failed Broadway producer who remains the world’s greatest optimist, prepares to entrance live crowds and radio listeners with some Yankee Doodle razzle-dazzle, while his older brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), a forlorn cellist who has returned from post-war Europe, is anguished over the disappearance of his beloved wife Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). Complicating things further, Narcissa, an amnesiac, nymphomaniac sleepwalker, has become Chester’s most recent companion and muse. Meanwhile, the brothers’ father, the guilt-ridden Fyodor (David Fox), atones for accidentally amputating the legs of Lady Port-Huntley – his one true love – by crafting a pair of glass legs filled with beer. Ultimately, a cataclysmic fire and the machinations of fate determine the outcome of the contest and the destinies of those involved.

Visually inventive and amusing, delirious and idiosyncratic, The Saddest Music in the World is director Guy Maddin’s successful attempt to craft a film with mass appeal while staying true to his unique, eccentric cinematic vision. The most robustly paced and narratively coherent of Maddin’s films to date, it is as much an absurdly comedic musical melodrama as a surrealist, tongue-in-cheek social satire. Like his earlier work, it plays with film language in a dream-like manner, combining black and white and colour with an expressionistic style and anachronistic techniques that evoke the aesthetic of Soviet montage and early silent films.

Working from an original script by Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), Maddin, along with his regular writing partner Greg Toles, reworked the material to reflect his signature vision. The script’s original setting – London on the eve of perestroika – was changed to Maddin’s native Winnipeg during the dustbowl of the Depression. Various other details were altered to achieve the level of inspired lunacy fans have come to expect of Maddin’s work. Benefitting from a $3.5 million budget, a twenty-four-day shooting schedule and, in Maddin’s words, "real movie stars," the film stands as his most polished and narratively accomplished film to date. It also boasts perfectly pitched performances from an outstanding cast, including a particularly inspired turn by Isabella Rossellini as the beer-legged baroness.

The Saddest Music in the World screened as a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival®, where it was met with wide praise and developed strong word-of-mouth momentum. It was nominated for four Genie Awards and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2003 by an independent, national panel comprised of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.

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