Heady Brew

  • In 1933 Warner Bros. made perky musicals designed to snap Americans out of their depression. In Canada, as filmmaker Guy Maddin imagines it, a rich woman dreamed of exploiting, not exorcising, the world's misery. Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), a scheming beer baroness whose two glass legs are filled with her own brew, concocts a song contest with a $25,000 prize for the saddest music in the world. In return, milady will have the ideal promo for the end of Prohibition in the U.S. As she promises, "If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady."

    Cinephiles know the Winnipeg-based Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) as a unique, independent spirit who makes modern movies with exquisitely anachronistic techniques: fake degraded stock, blue and yellow tints, declamatory acting styles and lighting so soft-focus, Garbo could have bathed in it. The Saddest Music in the World, based on a script by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains of the Day), is Maddin's first superproduction. It boasts a $2.5 million budget and a few actors you may have heard of: Rossellini, Euro-Kewpie Maria de Medeiros and Mark McKinney from The Kids in the Hall.

    The approach, though, is as weird as ever. From the talking tapeworm at the beginning to the Eskimo production number at the end, Saddest Music is the most enthralling 1933 musical made in 2003. In a movie age when there's hardly a garde, let alone an avant-garde, Maddin proves there are many languages to cinema, including the dead one of antique film. And in that language, he sings, he soars.