As creative hat-tricks go, Guy Maddin's delirious trifecta of Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, Cowards Bend The Knee, and The Saddest Music In The World is the cinematic equivalent of Elvis Costello's "2 1/2 years," a period when three of his best albums (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces) materialized in a sustained flurry of inspiration. Though Maddin can't claim the same cultural impact, these films' infectious energy and singularity pack a cumulative rush, condensing the Canadian director's whirligig retro-vision into one grand melodramatic opus.
The breeziest and least substantial of the three, Saddest Music overextends an idea that might have worked better in the short form, especially given the premium Maddin places on speed and concision. But well before it runs out of steam, the film's irreverent goof on Depression-era Winnipeg fires off hilariously eccentric one-liners and makes the most of Maddin's Cuisinart mesh of vintage silent-movie effects. Combining high-grain stock with pinspots and color tinting, the images resemble footage found deep within a studio vault, but Maddin's spastic cutting style suggests a film buff carried away by his own enthusiasm.
Unofficial queen of a city the London Times calls "the world capital of sorrow," beer-baroness and double leg-amputee Isabella Rossellini hosts a tournament to determine which country boasts the world's saddest music. With musicians from around the globe descending on Winnipeg for the $25,000 first prize, Rossellini's smooth-talking ex-lover Mark McKinney and his girlfriend Maria de Medeiros (who claims a tapeworm tells her what to do) compete for the American side. Though McKinney doesn't have a somber bone in his body, he figures that "sadness isn't hurt one bit by a little razzle-dazzle showmanship." McKinney's chief competitor, for the contest and for Medeiros' heart, is his estranged brother Ross McMillan, a hypochondriac whose lone cello echoes the sadness of Serbia.
The musical face-offs, which pit nation against nation, are the funniest element of Saddest Music—they come complete with color commentary (on Siam: "You can almost hear the typhoon bearing down on the defenseless village") and the winners sliding into a swimming pool full of ale. True to form, Maddin dreams up elaborate backstories for each of the characters, such as the sad story of the drunken amputation of Rossellini's good leg, and the subsequent creation of sparkling, beer-filled glass prosthetics.
Though he labors mightily to extend a premise too thin for feature length, the strain shows in the closing act, when the tournament gimmick wears off and the romantic and familial crises fail to cohere. But even lesser Maddin films have a higher rate of invention per frame than the majority of his peers can muster.