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The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World is a 2003 Canadian film directed by Guy Maddin, budgeted at $3.8-million (a large budget relative to the average Canadian film)[2] and shot over 24 days.[3] The film was Maddin's first collaboration with Isabella Rossellini, who subsequently appeared in a number of Maddin's films, and co-created a film with him about her father Roberto Rossellini.

The Saddest Music in the World
Directed by Guy Maddin
Produced by Niv Fichman
Daniel Iron
Jody Shapiro
Executive Producer
Atom Egoyan
Written by Screenplay:
Guy Maddin
George Toles
Starring Isabella Rossellini
Mark McKinney
Maria de Medeiros
David Fox
Ross McMillan
Louis Negin
Music by Christopher Dedrick
Cinematography Luc Montpellier
Edited by David Wharnsby
Distributed by IFC Films (US theatrical)
MGM (North America DVD)
Release date
September 07, 2003 (Canada)
October 25, 2003 (UK)
February 14, 2004 (US)
Running time
99 minutes
Country Canada
Language English
Budget CAD $3.8 million (estimated)[1]

Maddin and co-writer George Toles based the film on an original screenplay written by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, from which they kept "the title, the premise and the contest – to determine which country’s music was the saddest" but otherwise re-wrote.[4] Like most of Guy Maddin's films, The Saddest Music in the World is filmed in a style that imitates late 1920s and early 1930s cinema, with grainy black-and-white photography, slightly out-of-sync sound and expressionist art design. A few scenes are filmed in colour, in a manner that imitates early two-strip Technicolor.



During the Great Depression in 1933 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, baroness Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) announces a competition to find the saddest music in the world, as a publicity stunt to promote her company, Muskeg Beer, as Prohibition is about to end in the United States. The prize is $25,000 "Depression-era dollars" and musicians from all over the world pour into Winnipeg to compete. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a failing Broadway producer, decides to enter the contest representing America, even though he is Canadian and originally from Winnipeg. An old fortune teller predicts his doom, but Chester mocks this prediction by having his nymphomaniac amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) masturbate him. Also entering the contest are Chester's father Fyodor (David Fox), representing Canada, and his brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), representing Serbia as "Gavrilo the Great" (even though he is also Canadian).

It is revealed that Fyodor is in love with Helen, who he had once hoped to marry. However, Helen and Chester had an affair, and an accident involving the three occurred when Fyodor stepped out in front of Chester's car as Helen was performing oral sex on Chester. Helen's legs were both amputated as a result, and Fyodor became an alcoholic, while Chester left for Broadway. With Chester returned, and his relationship with Helen renewed, Fyodor swears off drink and fashions prosthetic legs filled with beer in an attempt to earn Helen's love.

Roderick meanwhile discovers that Chester's girlfriend Narcissa is his missing wife, who has forgotten both their marriage and their son after the boy's death (Roderick carries the boy's heart in a jar, preserved in his own tears). Helen rigs the contest to favour Chester/America, and Fyodor/Canada quickly loses after singing "Red Maples Leaves," although Roderick/Serbia advances. Although Roderick and Narcissa have sex, she still doesn't remember their marriage, and he accidentally breaks the jar containing his son's heart (which is pierced by a glass shard), and although Helen loves her new glass beer legs, she still hates Fyodor. Fyodor then drinks a leg's worth of beer and falls through the concert hall rooftop to his death.

Helen appears in Chester's final performance, but her legs leak and explode when Roderick plays. Roderick then changes his tune to play "The Song Is You," which he had sworn not to perform until reunited with his wife. The song recovers Narcissa's memory and Chester, meanwhile, is stabbed to death by Helen (using a long shard from her glass legs). Chester refuses to let this sadden him, and staggers away, accidentally setting the building on fire with his victory cigar. Chester dies playing "The Song Is You" on the piano as the building burns.



The Saddest Music in the World was released theatrically in Canada on September 7, 2003, to the UK on October 25, 2003, and to the US on February 14, 2004. TVAFilms released it to home video on DVD in 2004, with a director's commentary by Maddin and Mark McKinney, and three short films: "A Trip to the Orphanage," "Sombra Dolorosa," and "Sissy Boy Slap Party."[5]

Awards and honorsEdit

Directors Guild of Canada:

  • Win: Outstanding Achievement in Production Design, Feature Film - Matthew Davies
  • Nominated: Outstanding Achievement in Direction, Feature Film - Guy Maddin
  • Nominated: Outstanding Achievement in Picture Editing, Feature Film - David Wharnsby

Genie Awards

  • Win: Best Achievement in Costume Design - Meg McMillan
  • Win: Best Achievement in Editing - David Wharnsby
  • Win: Best Achievement in Music, Original Score - Christopher Dedrick
  • Nominated: Best Achievement in Direction - Guy Maddin

U.S. Comedy Arts Festival

  • Win: Film Discovery Jury Award, Best Director - Guy Maddin

Critical receptionEdit

The Saddest Music in the World was well received by critics, with a 78/100 rating by review aggregator Metacritic, based on 33 critics.[6] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes similarly reported a 78% approval rating based on 101 reviews.[7]

The Christian Science Monitor drew attention to "Maddin's unique style ... [which] carries old-movie nostalgia past the breaking point, making the picture look and sound like a long-ago production that's been stored under somebody's bed for the past few decades, and now reaches the screen replete with often-spliced frames and a fuzz-filled sound track. This is no mere gimmick but a core ingredient of Maddin's aesthetic, which bestows affection and regard on everything we overlook and undervalue in our daily lives."[8]

Roger Ebert gave the film 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, calling it "entirely original" and noting that "You have never seen a film like this before, unless you have seen other films by Guy Maddin."[9]


  1. ^ Beard, William. Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. Print. ISBN 978-1442610668
  2. ^ Beard, William. Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. Print. ISBN 978-1442610668
  3. ^ Guy Maddin. "Sad Songs Say So Much: Prosthetics and Process: A Shooting Journal". Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  4. ^ "Guy Maddin and George Toles interviewed about writing The Saddest Music in the World". 
  5. ^ Maddin, Guy, dir. The Saddest Music in the World. TVAFilms, 2004. DVD.
  6. ^ "The Saddest Music in the World — Metacritic". Metacritic. Retrieved 2012-10-14. 
  7. ^ "The Saddest Music in the World (2003) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-10-14. 
  8. ^ "Director makes weird, wonderful". Retrieved 2013-01-14. 
  9. ^ "The Saddest Music in the World --". Retrieved 2013-01-14. 

External linksEdit