Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 15 November 2004
Source MGM DVD
I think it would be magic to live inside Guy Maddin’s head for a day. Here is a man who thinks the films of Carl Dreyer are high comedy, who thinks that the films Joan Crawford are the pinnacle of American filmmaking, and yet who is every bit the beer-drinking, hockey-playing Canadian the stereotypes would have us believe. I said last year in a review of his Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary that I believed he was stylistic heir of Josef von Sternberg. His latest film, The Saddest Music in the World does not prove me wrong (in fact, it mostly proves me more correct), but it plays like the kind of film von Sternberg would dream about making if only the studios would have allowed it. Our twenty-first century stand-in for Marlene Dietrich, Isabella Rossellini, plays not just a mysterious blonde, but a mysterious bewigged blonde with glass legs who owns a brewery and throws a contest with an extravagant cash prize, in the middle of the Depression, to determine which country possesses the saddest music in the world. Where there is money to be won, you can bet that someone with underhanded instincts will show up to try and cheat everyone else. When the interweaving connections between our brewery queen and the representatives of three different nations begin to be revealed, Maddin’s well-oiled melodrama machine starts to chug away.
I wish that I were talented enough to describe Guy Maddin’s films using only words, but it would be nearly impossible for even the best writer to do so. A Guy Maddin film is so visually inventive, so full of rich detail, and so prismatic in appearance that attempting to describe it is like trying to explain the color blue. It really can’t be done, you just have to see it and experience it for yourself. His films appeal to those of us who love the film medium itself, who revel in visible grain and thrill to the crackle of an optical soundtrack. Maddin has seemingly internalized the entirety of film history (at least up until 1953) and can thus make movies that do not just replicate the golden era of Hollywood, but seem to emanate from it. There is a real vigor and liveliness to Maddin’s filmmaking that is missing in the work of other filmmakers who have taken classic Hollywood as their stylistic model, and so the films do not just sit prettily and daintily on the screen as a figurine would on a mantel. The audience is roused and engaged by the images and sounds and is involved in the narrative, no matter how patently ridiculous it is. Maddin’s films simultaneously reveal and partake of the essence of cinema and so, as a filmmaker, he has few peers.