Lady Helen Portly-Huntley, the Beer mogul, hopes in the Winnipeg winter of 1933 to gather the atmosphere of the city- the saddest city in the world according to the London Times for four years running- and distill it in a tune. She decides to hold a contest for the saddest music in the world. Of course there is an ulterior motive: Lady Portly Huntley wants to use the festival to sell her beer and undermine American prohibition with an exhibit both of the despair of the great depression and of the salving power of alcohol. Her festival has unexpected consequences. Representing America we have Chester, a producer and his lover, Narcissa: Chester was once the lover of Helen herself. He is from Winnipeg but has escaped Canada for the United States. His father who also loved Helen though he never became her lover represents Canada- and his other son, Roderick, under the name Gavrillo the Great (of which more later) represents Serbia. Just to complicate things further, Roderick's ex wife is Narcissa- a woman with whom he is still deeply in love. This complicated skein of relationships twists and turns itself in and out as the film continues: there is one added complication, Lady Helen has lost her legs (she lost them when the father made a failed operation after she was injured giving aural sex in a car to his son Chester).
This scenario is told with skill. Maddin is a showy film maker- you see his craft. What he tries to do in this film is evoke the world of early Hollywood- so he uses black and white mainly (there are some scenes in technicolour) and tints it to show different effects. So when Lady Helen sinks to her knees to service Chester, the screen goes very very blue. There are some lovely frames, where Maddin makes the optimal use of the fact that early cinema blurred the background of a film- often not having precision through the whole image. His film has a dated and sometimes a speeded up look- but he uses that to make his argument. So a scene where the father in distress smashes up a room becomes more powerful because it is filmed in the way one might see a film of an action by Charlie Chaplin, disjointed and sped up compared to early life. Limiting the image to the screen means that he can focus his lens: so his two actresses- Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rosselini- are often seen in focus which exploits the fact that they have two of the most interesting and beautiful female faces in cinema. One could say the same for the craggy and disappointed figure of the father- David Fox- whose face again lights up the screen. Rather differently, he uses the camera to obscure Roderick (Ross McMillan's) face- the camera cannot see through veils, and when his face is shown it is like a mad scientist or a block of white- the mystery of the lunatic is maintained.
Lunacy is at the centre of this film: the lunacy of World War One started by Gavrillo, a Serbian who shot the Archduke of Austria, the lunacy of the productions of the great movie sets, the lunacy of love which directs humans together and maintains connections for years- lunacy is tragedy but it is also Maddin informs us the very stuff of life. The characters here have their particular madnesses- Narcissa listens to a tapeworm to get advice, Roderick dresses in a huge black veil as a disguise (the picture is of some 1920s villain). Many critics, including Stephanie Zacharek for instance in Salon criticised the picture for not saying enough about the world- getting lost in its own lunatic eccentricity and forgetting propulsion for the sake of poetry. I don't think they are right- the Saddest Music in the world does have a meaning and the meaning- whether Maddin intended it or not- is important and goes beyond the trite statement that no music can ever express the depth of human sadness.
The meaning lies more in two arguments- one about the sincerity of emotion and the other about the sincerity of art- both relate to Maddin's stereotypical American and one might feel encapsulate a critique of one image of the American. The first argument is that in this contest there is one character who feels no sadness- Chester does not feel sad, he merely attempts an impression of sadness. The truth is that his sadness is so artificial that it makes his performances more glitzy than they are glorious. Having never seen sadness, he can impersonate it even bribe impersonaters of it but he finds it hard to create it. Roderick because he feels it more intensely eventually wins the prize. But lets go further- another issue with Chester is that he is repugnant precisely because he has never felt sadness. Never feeling sad means he is a vacuum- he cannot make certain appeals. Narcissa is the ultimate arbiter between the two brothers- her name is a clue to her status in the film with Chester she sees merely herself reflected back, only Roderick can awake her to the individuality of others. Chester is too happy to be human and because he cannot feel and therefore value sadness, cannot feel and therefore value right and wrong. He is a gleeful, brash psychopath- whereas Roderick is a depressive hypochondriac (one gets a feeling that the one symbolizes America, the other Europe.)
There are so many things wrapped into this film- but I think the broadest picture is that link between what I feel, what I can represent and what I have to feel to be a moral person. Chester's problem is that his lack of feeling means he cannot represent sadness, furthermore it means that ultimately he lies outside of the human community- a community which is defined by feeling and reaction- reaction to circumstances and to art like this.