Director makes weird, wonderful

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Isabella Rossellini is a daring actress, often working with directors such as David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, mavericks through and through.

So it isn't surprising to find her heading the cast of "The Saddest Music in the World," a deliciously weirded-out picture by Guy Maddin, a deliciously weirded-out Canadian filmmaker.

The movie's subject is exactly what the title says. Rossellini plays a wealthy Winnipeg woman in 1933 who decides to sponsor an international contest: Which nation can come up with the most melancholy melodies she's ever heard?

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Every country you can imagine (and some nobody can) scrambles to get into the act, hoping to jerk enough tears for the $25,000 prize to come its way. Among the competitors are three Canadian relatives who haven't seen one another for ages. One is returning from a disastrous foray into American showbiz. The second is his brother, a man so mournful he wears a black veil as big as a birdcage. The third is their father, a former physician who hopes to win with a heartrending rendition of "Red Maple Leaves."

What makes this crazy, tragicomic stuff so brilliant is Mr. Maddin's unique style. In the vein of earlier Maddin pictures like "Archangel" and "Careful," he carries old-movie nostalgia past the breaking point, making the picture look and sound like a long-ago production that's been stored under somebody's bed for the past few decades, and now reaches the screen replete with often-spliced frames and a fuzz-filled sound track.

This is no mere gimmick but a core ingredient of Maddin's aesthetic, which bestows affection and regard on everything we overlook and undervalue in our daily lives.

His films are deliberately artificial and persistently perverse - and therein lies their glory, assuming you can tune into his offbeat wavelength, which not everyone wants (or cares) to do.

Maddin appeared to be running low on creative steam when his disappointing 1997 feature "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" failed to receive an American theatrical release. He made a rollicking comeback with his 2000 short "The Heart of the World," though, and now seems more unstoppable than ever, with "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary" a recent video triumph and "Cowards Bend the Knee" due this summer.

All that talent and Rossellini too! If you're as adventurous a moviegoer as Maddin is a filmmaker, "The Saddest Music" is not to be missed.

Not rated; contains adult material.

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