Guy Maddin is a wonder. He can construct films that live in an entirely alternate universe that is fully realized. Although many of his friends involve his hometown of Winnipeg, each story he tells could be set in any other cold and winter wonderland. Each film of his stands on its own but seems to also be a variation of melodrama, silent era film tricks, and obscure dialogue. This film is no different.
Set during the Depression era, a woman entrepreneur sets a competition for the saddest music in the world. The winner would win 25,000 dollars (which was a huge sum during the Depression) and their country would be crowned the saddest in the world. People come from all over the world, including Siam, Africa, Spain and China. However the film focuses on two brothers and their father. One brother, who pretends to be American and represents the country, seems to be like a snake oil salesman with his greased back hair and his overt stealing of other countries’ music as they each lose the battle. He is accompanied by a woman who has a telepathic tapeworm and sings beautifully. She lies, but only unconsciously. The other brother represents Serbia and is constantly shrouded in some sort of disguise, whether it be fake eyebrows and mustache or a large black hat with a draping veil. His sorrow is genuine if a little overwrought. He lost his wife after their child died and he travels all over the world playing the same sad song in order to find her. The father is the link both of these characters share to the baroness who commissions the contest. The father used to be her lover, but when she started loving the snake oil salesman brother, the father was driven to drink. One night while drunk, he causes a car crash that crushes the baroness. He decides to operate and he ends up taking off the wrong leg, thus crippling her for life. Several times the father tries to make it up to her, once by entering the contest to represent Canada and another time to make her glass legs with her beer in it. Each time she chides him and ignores him.
The plot thickens from there, but it doesn’t seem as important as the music in the film. Each piece of music representing a forlorn country is aching and beautiful at the same time. Maddin showcases each performance and gives them equal time to the main plot. I particularly loved the scene when it was Spain vs Serbia. The merging of these two songs was done so well and was shot so impactful that it will stick in my head for days. For the most part the film is in black and white, but there are few sequences where it has turned to color. One of those sequences is towards the very end when the American has reached the final battle with his brother from Serbia and he puts on this spectacle that is really just a hodgepodge of every music style showcased in the film so far. It is awful to listen to and the color is just as jarring. It is a great example of how only using two elements in filmmaking can still have a powerful impact on the viewer.
As I was watching this film, I kept thinking about how this film feels and looks like a forgotten classic from the twenties. Maddin is wonder when it comes to using different types of cameras and techniques to make the film look classic and in another era. However I don’t think this type of story could have been told during the time that this film is set. Although he borrows from the German Expressionists, early filmmakers, and Busby Berkley, Maddin has his own way of choosing and producing stories that can be very much his own. The look of this film was fantastic.
Maddin is a required taste. I would only suggest watching his films if you enjoy watching silent films, love abstract art, or are really interested in paying close attention for the film’s duration. This film is one of his most accessible, but it can still be jarring for the casual film viewer. However if you are willing to put in the time and can appreciate melodrama and older film tricks, then I would definitely recommend this film. If only there were more filmmakers like him.