Making Sweet Music

"If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady," purrs Isabella Rossellini as Lady Port-Huntley, a flamboyant Winnipeg beer baroness, double amputee and sponsor of a global competition to determine which country has the world's most melancholy music. "The Saddest Music in the World," which is set in a snowbound, studio-created Winnipeg in the depths of the Great Depression, is itself anything but sad. Hilariously odd and prodigiously inventive, it springs from the eccentric mind of Guy Maddin, whose delirious visions have earned this singular Canadian filmmaker an international cult following.

As his latest outrageous melodrama begins, you might think the movie was something found in a trunk circa 1924: the distressed black-and-white images seem to belong in an expressionist silent film. If gritty realism is your thing, the artifice-embracing Maddin is not for you. "The Saddest Music in the World" is suspended somewhere between camp, surrealism and Victorian melodrama. Two of the men competing for Lady Port-Huntley's $25,000 in prize money--the crass and cocky Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney from Kids in the Hall) and the legendary Serbian cellist Gavrilo the Great (Ross McMillan)--are in fact brothers from Winnipeg, and it was their alcoholic father, Fyodor (David Fox), an ex-surgeon, who was responsible for accidentally sawing off the wrong leg of the beer tycoon with whom both he--and his son Chester--was having an affair.

If that sounds baroque, it's just the tip of this tormented family saga, which involves a dead child, an amnesiac wife, guilt, atonement and revenge, all of it unfolding against the competition itself. (In the contest, two countries--Mexico and China, say--have a musical duel, and the winner of each round celebrates by sliding down a chute into a vat of Lady Port-Huntley's beer.) Maddin's hand-crafted films are made on remarkably low budgets, but they're the opposite of lean cuisine: they're stuffed to the breaking point with visual and narrative invention. Watching "The Saddest Music" is like feasting on nothing but desserts for 90 minutes. Some stomachs may find it a bit too rich. Lovers of the cinematically outre, however, are more likely to find it simply delicious.