The Saddest Music in the World

Isabella Rossellini in The Saddest Music in the World


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 October



The London Beer Flood, 1814

On this day in 1814, a huge vat containing the equivalent of one million imperial pints of porter ruptured in central London, causing a tidal wave of beer to cascade down the road and through neighbouring houses. Eight people died, either by drowning or underneath the buildings brought down by the liquid. The brewery was owned by Henry Meux (pronounced myooks) and could be found just off the Tottenham Court Road, London, roughly where the Dominion Theatre is today, and its giant vat was one of a series constructed around that time, big vats being ideal for the ageing of porter (a drink not unlike Guinness). Earlier in the day of 17th an iron hoop, weighing around 350kg had fallen off the nearly 7 metre (22 feet) high vat. At 5.30pm the vat burst, taking out the end wall of the brewery, smashing hogsheads and liberating a further 2,100 barrels of beer from another large vat in the cellar below. Among the people who died were a four year old girl and a party of people who had gathered to mourn the loss of a two-year-old boy who had died the previous day. One of those who died was his mother.



The Saddest Music in the World (2003, dir: Guy Maddin)

“If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady” says Isabella Rossellini, who plays the beer baroness who, at the height of the Great Depression, sponsors a contest to find the world’s saddest tune. Guy Maddin’s insane gothic musical was the first of his films that I’d seen. Possibly only matched by My Winnipeg for accomplishment and accessibility (if you persist), it’s a darkly comic, dizzy musical based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) and we join the action as Winnipeg (Maddin’s home town) has been chosen for the third time by The Times of London as the “world capital of sorrow”. Hence the competition launched by Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini) to match music to the metropolis, the winner to be paid in “Depression-era dollars”, the whole thing supposedly taking place in 1933. Shooting in black and white on 8mm and then blowing the picture up, Maddin achieves a grainy quality, old school but not quite (see 2011’s Keyhole for something similar), not quite pastiche, not quite recreation, as if we’re looking at the past through a distorting mirror that also produces halo effects. The effect is slightly unnerving, unique, and things continue in that direction once the actual competition kicks off, when we’re treated to a series of songs from an assortment of oddball variety acts – bagpipes and pygmies and a hockey team being three notables. Though it’s in English it’s like watching a comedy in a foreign language, one with a peculiarly dry sense of humour. David Lynch is in there somewhere, undoubtedly (let’s not forget that Rossellini had turned up in Blue Velvet) though the weird humour and point of view is all Maddin’s.



Why Watch?


  • To see Rossellini getting her legs amputated
  • Who said arthouse can’t be funny?
  • A good place to start with a unique film-maker
  • False legs, made of glass and filled with beer!


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Saddest Music in the World – at Amazon






keyhole 2



“That penis is getting dusty” – a line of dialogue in wonky auteur Guy Maddin’s latest film, another arthouse exploration of arthouse themes delivered in high contrast monochrome, from a camera on a bungee and via an editor with attention deficit disorder.

There are a couple of famous names too, just to lure in the unwary, or more likely to open the wallets of the various art foundations that funded this mad collision of references. Isabella Rossellini, longtime Maddin collaborator and utterer of the great line in his film The Saddest Music in the World – “If you’re sad and you like beer, I’m your lady” – she’s here. So too, as you can see from the above picture, is Udo Kier, a guarantor of oddness and, usually, of awfulness too.

Plot? Well, it hasn’t got much of one. Jason Patric – I don’t think I’ve seen him in a film since Speed 2 and age has improved him, wiped some of the shit-eating smugness off his face – plays a kind of Humphrey Bogart Mr Big, pinned down inside a house with his gang and expecting an attack by the police any minute. Until that comes he wanders about a bit, discovering stuff’s all a bit weird in there. There’s a naked old guy on chain tied to Rossellini’s bed. It’s meant to be her dad. We can see his penis, in fact Maddin shows it to us a couple of times quite gratuitously, as if this were one of the proofs that what we’re watching is arthouse. So, a bit Key Largo with nudity, then. That Patric’s name is Ulysses is significant; Maddin is adding a layer of Homer’s Odyssey for extra artistic kudos to a film that’s already thick with allusion – Universal monster movies of the 1930s, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Citizen Kane, James Whale.

The effect of this opaque plotting, old-time set-dressing, bizarre characterisation – I didn’t mention the soundtrack that seems to have been put through a wonkalizer but it’s there too – the effect of all this is to produce a film not unlike David Lynch’s Eraserhead in look and tone. And I bet you that isn’t what Maddin was after. But being born in 1956 means Maddin has taken a full hit of Lynchian radioactivity and the filmic genes have mutated. The Guy can’t help it.

So by the time we get to “that penis is getting dusty” – it’s an erect wooden one sticking randomly out of a wall in a corridor – uttered by Patric in passing, we really don’t care any more. The next cut is to a woman licking the stump of an arm-amputee and I have to admit that at this point I rolled my eyes and quietly groaned “for god’s sake”. You’d think a guy nudging 60 might have got that kind of artschool nonsense out of his system.

On the upside. Thinking long and hard here. I’m going to digress a bit. Maddin does understand how gorgeous black and white can be and he does make interesting films – somehow managing to be frenzied and languid at the same time. The Saddest Music in the World is even odder than Keyhole but it does at least have a plot (a competition to find the saddest music in the world, with Rossellini playing a brewery heiress, hence her hilarious line), and it’s got a sense of humour. Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a very odd portrait of his home town, is a poetic meditation on the power of native towns on the psyche and has the same nightmare (and yes, Lynchian) texture as Keyhole. But it too is about something and once Maddin’s dreamy, oblique modus operandi has been absorbed, it’s a really powerful film.

This has all the hallmarks of Maddin’s unique (if we ignore David Lynch, or possibly even Terence Davies, at a push) style of working (see Davies’s Of Time and the City for a lovely, dreamy and ranting portrait of a home town, Liverpool in his case). In Keyhole Maddin is working the “other” avenue of film-making, the one that lost out to the Hollywood style when silent movies were still king, the one that proceeds by layering impressions, atmospheres, sounds and edits together to produce something less linear, more poetic, often more disturbing.

On this basis alone Keyhole is a film worth watching, that it represents the other way of doing it in a world that doesn’t seem to have much time for it. The various foundations that funded Keyhole will certainly be very happy – all those arthouse tickboxes filled in. Or maybe I’ve read it all wrong and Maddin was actually having a laugh at the institutions’ expense – delivering arthouse by numbers. I wouldn’t put it past him.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Keyhole – at Amazon