Sad is sweet

Art flick with Rossellini offers glimpse of cinematic perfection

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It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s a joke, it’s very serious, and it features Isabella Rossellini playing a legless beer baroness. What more could you ask for?

Canadian director Guy Maddin makes fever-dream films with a template based on the German Expressionism of the great silent film directors F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The form uses a superficially melodramatic acting style that is given psychological depth through shadowy chiaroscuro and baroque camera angles. His films look like distressed prints that were found in a vault somewhere, carefully cleaned and assembled but still showing their age, blurry around the edges and glowing with a diffused light. Visually, the line between satire and homage is unclear, and the mood hovers between the ridiculous and a darker yearning.

Until now, Maddin’s films have seemed more admirable than enjoyable, his dazzling originality organic and unforced, but his stories vague fables that tended to run out of steam much too early. In Saddest, Maddin achieves a new cohesiveness of story and technique.

Set in Depression-era Winnipeg and adapted from an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), the plot centers on a contest sponsored by Helen Port-Huntley (Rossellini) to find the saddest song in the world. The complicated story involves Port-Huntley’s love/hate relationship with the cynical Chester Kent (Mark McKinney, of Kids In The Hall fame), the dangerous delusions of his crazed brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) and his even more crazed father Fyodor (David Fox).

Then there are the ethereal motives of Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, who was Bruce Willis’ petite girlfriend in Pulp Fiction), who is the lover of both brothers Roderick and Chester. There’s a
variety of music from various countries entered into the sad song contest, but there’s one tune that keeps popping up in various permutations: the old Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern chestnut, “The Song Is You.” A favorite among jazz musicians ever since Charlie Parker first nailed it, the song is usually offered as an upbeat burst of exhilaration. But here it is somber when played on Roderick’s cello, wistful when sung by Narcissa and campy when crooned by cavorting hockey players. The song is a musical
corollary to the movie’s changes of mood, which seem as arbitrary as the film’s back and forth between black and white and color. The switching-up helps make this Maddin’s most satisfying effort. It’s such a swirl of intentions that when Port-Huntley, an amputee after a car accident, acquires a pair of glass legs filled with beer, it’s not necessarily silly or even, in context, particularly strange. It’s a shame, as she says, that when walking outdoors in the Winnepeg winter she can’t feel the cold caressing her new and lovely limbs.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Friday and Saturday, May 21-22, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, May 23, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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