American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
So many movies travel the same weary roads. So few imagine entirely original worlds. Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World" exists in a time and place we have never seen before, although it claims to be set in Winnipeg in 1933. The city, we learn, has been chosen by the London Times, for the fourth year in a row, as "the world capital of sorrow." Here Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) has summoned entries for a contest which will award $25,000 "in Depression Era dollars" to the performer of the saddest music.
This plot suggests no doubt some kind of camp musical, a sub-Monty Python comedy. What Maddin makes of it is a comedy, yes, but also an eerie fantasy that suggests a silent film like "Metropolis" (1927) crossed with a musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald, and then left to marinate for long forgotten years in an enchanted vault. The Canadian filmmaker has devised a style that evokes old films from an alternate timeline; "The Saddest Music" is not silent and not entirely in black and white, but it looks like a long-lost classic from decades ago, grainy and sometimes faded; he shoots on 8mm film and video and blows it up to look like a memory from cinema's distant past.
The effect is strange and delightful; somehow the style lends quasi-credibility to a story that is entirely preposterous. Because we have to focus a little more intently, we're drawn into the film, surrounded by it. There is the sensation of a new world being created around us. The screenplay, by Maddin and George Toles, is based on a work by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the very different Remains of the Day. Here he creates, for Maddin's visual style, a fable that's "Canadian Idol" crossed with troubled dreams.
Lady Port-Huntly owns a brewery, and hopes the contest will promote sales of her beer. Played by Rossellini in a blond wig that seems borrowed from a Viennese fairy tale, she is a woman who has lost her legs and propels herself on a little wheeled cart until being supplied with fine new glass legs, filled with her own beer.