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Film / The Saddest Music in the World

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"If you are sad and like beer, I'm your lady."
Lady Helen Port-Huntley

The Saddest Music in the World is a 2003 Canadian film directed by Guy Maddin, starring Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney.

Set in Winnipeg during The Great Depression, a legless baroness host a contest for the saddest music in the world, with a grand prize of $25,000. During the assembly of contestants a father and his two sons; one who thinks he's an American, one who is succumbing to madness over the death of his son and his ex-lovers nymphomaniac tendencies and the father a pathetic drunkard who fucks everything up. Their unique dynamics with the beer-baroness and tragedy bring these characters together to express their deep feelings of pain and give in to treachery.


This film provides examples of:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Helen, who lost her legs in a car accident.
  • Bookends: The Fortune Teller from the beginning is shown again laughing at Chester's demise in the final scene.
  • Chekhov M.I.A.: Roderick asks his father if he has seen his missing wife and sure enough she turns out to be Chester's current lover.
  • Combat Commentator: The two commentators at the music contest.
  • Convection Schmonvection: Chester has no problem playing the piano sitting in a room on fire.
  • Creator Thumbprint: Winnipeg (Guy Maddin's hometome) as a setting.
  • Crystal Ball: In the opening scene the Fortune Teller uses a block of ice as a crystal ball.
  • Cuckold: Fyodor Kent. Helen mentions that she cheated with Chester right under Fyodor's nose who started suspecting being subjected to this trope.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The movie was shot on black and white film to made it appear 1920/30-ish.
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  • Empty Shell: Roderick. He never recovered from having gone through a Despair Event Horizon after his son died and his wife left in the aftermath.
  • Evil Laughter: The Fortune Teller laughs this way at Chester in the beginning and the end.
  • Glass-Shattering Sound: Roderick creates a high pitched sound with his cello that makes Helen's glass legs break.
  • Global Ignorance: One title card announces "Canada versus Africa".
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Roderick, seeing his wife with Chester.
  • Liquid Courage: Fyodor Kent takes a nip from his flask before sawing off Helen's (wrong) leg.
  • Missing Mom: Minor plot point. In a flashback at the Fortune Teller's we learn that Chester's mom died when he was still a child.
  • Motifs: Death and intense emotions seem to coincide with the breaking of glass. The jar holding the son's heart breaking, the father breaking through a pane of glass and falling to his death/drowns in beer, the legs breaking, Chester being stabbed by a shard of glass.
  • Pardon Me Stewardess, I Speak Iambic Pentameter: The title "The Saddest Music in the World" is an example of iambic tetrameter (four feet, each going from an unstressed syllable to stressed).
  • Retraux: The "silent film" look is Guy Maddin's Creator Thumbprint.
  • Right Through the Wall: Fyodor and Roderick walk in to hear Chester making loud sex noises while getting it on with Narcissa upstairs.
  • Soft Water: Averted. Fyodor dies falling through the glass roof into the beer pool.
  • Still Wearing the Old Colors: Fyodor still wears his uniform from the great war.
  • Time-Compression Montage: The passage of the music contest is compressed in a couple of key shots juxtaposed with music sheets as Spinning Papers.
  • Trash the Set: Fyodor trashes his studio towards the end out of frustration.


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