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Today’s enchanted cities are mostly prefab nonplaces such as Orlando and Las Vegas, but not everyone dreams of theme parks and scale-model streetscapes. Some people still yearn for Paris, bastion of culture and off-the-books jobs for economic migrants from Africa and—as in Since Otar Left—Eastern Europe. Equally tantalizing, if utterly unreachable, is the lost glory that was Winnipeg, which in 1933—that is, Guy Maddin’s version of 1933—summoned The Saddest Music in the World.
It’s not hard to get to Paris if you have an American passport and some disposable income, but neither of those things is common in Tblisi, the capital of the erstwhile Soviet republic of Georgia. Otar, a former doctor, has somehow made his way to France, where he’s working construction. He might as well be dead, however, to the family he left behind: his fearless but timeworn mother, Eka (Esther Gorintin); his disenchanted sister, Marina (Nino Khomassouridze); and his seemingly clear-eyed niece, Ada (Dinara Droukarova). So the women’s lives should barely change when Marina and Ada learn that Otar was killed falling from the fifth floor of a building site—that is, if only Marina didn’t insist that they must keep the news from Eka.
In outline, director and co-writer Julie Bertuccelli’s bittersweet comedy resembles a dozen or more culture-clash movies made in the last decade or so. The foreign worker in Paris has become a stock character in international co-productions, and tales of disgruntled residents of ex-Soviet states are not exactly rare. Indeed, the first two-thirds of Since Otar Left suggest a more delicate, less sitcommy version of the recent Good Bye, Lenin!. After all, Eka is a diehard fan of a local boy who made good: “Stalin would have sorted this out,” she insists when the electricity goes out yet again. And Ada, at Marina’s insistence, begins writing phony letters from Otar, imitating his handwriting and French style.
Eka, Marina, and Ada speak mostly Russian among themselves, but they’re remnants of a Caucasus aristocracy that looked to France for cultural guidance. Though the women are poor in material things, this is the sort of family whose members read Proust aloud to each other—and not in translation. Marina and her amiable semiboyfriend, Tenguiz (Temour Kalandadze), frequent the local flea market, hawking stuff of dubious value for modest gain, but they won’t sell the household’s only treasure: the extensive French-language library of Eka’s late husband. Those foreign books are just as much the family’s legacy as Eka’s reverence for the Georgian-born monster who once ruled the USSR.
One reason that Good Bye, Lenin! smacks of situation comedy is that it never shifted the balance of power: The well-meaning young son just keeps dealing with new crises that threatened to reveal the Berlin Wall’s collapse to his ailing mother, a faithful Communist whose condition is too delicate for shocking revelations. In Since Otar Left, however, the three principal characters take turns driving the story. Marina insists on maintaining the illusion that Otar is alive, while Ada resists, trying to find the right moment to quit the deception. (“Don’t blame your mother,” Tenguiz tells her. “Our whole generation is like that.”) Eka, for her part, stuns the younger women by announcing that she’s arranged a trip to Paris for them to visit Otar.
Bertuccelli, whose debut feature this is, worked as an assistant director for Krzysztof Kieslowski and Bertrand Tavernier. She seems to have learned more from the latter: Since Otar Left is assured but never flashy, more inclined toward gentle satire than mysticism. The film’s look barely changes after the three women arrive in Paris, although the director does pull the camera back during the sequence in which Eka (embodied with perfect pitch by Gorintin) traverses the city on her own, searching for Otar. The effect, of course, is to emphasize the old woman’s vulnerability in a strange place that holds an unwelcome secret. Yet Eka isn’t as fragile as she appears, as is demonstrated by her reaction to the film’s small but utterly satisfying denouement. Don’t be too quick to assume which of the three women will weep in the final scene.
National identity is also an issue in Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, although not in a way that makes much sociopolitical sense. Like the Canadian director’s previous retrofuturist fantasias, the film is abundantly open to interpretation but seems altogether personal. An absurdist musical in the guise of a weathered old silent picture, the movie overwhelms yet makes no great effort to involve.
Although Saddest Music is unmistakably a Maddin film, the first mystery it presents is its origin. The script is credited to the director and George Toles, but from an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day. Though most of Ishiguro’s fictions seem as Resnais-ready as any Robbe-Grillet nouveau roman, some years ago the Japanese-born British writer stated that his favorite movies were those made by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. So perhaps Saddest Music was inspired in part by Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, in which an RAF pilot finds himself in Heaven, being judged by stereotypical representatives of many foreign lands.
Maddin’s fable transpires not in the afterlife but in his hometown, “the world capital of sorrow.” Still, both films involve an array of old-fashioned national types, beginning with Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a brash if penniless Broadway producer with a gift for only-in-America “pizzazz.” Visiting Manitoba with his new girlfriend, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester meets an old acquaintance, Canadian beer baroness (and double amputee) Lady Helen Port-Huntly (a blond-wigged Isabella Rossellini). The producer, because he’s actually from Winnipeg despite his self-identification as a New Yorker, isn’t especially surprised also to encounter his streetcar-driver father, Fyodor (David Fox), and his morose brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), currently performing as veiled Serbian cellist Gavrillo the Great. Both Chester and Fyodor number among Helen’s ex-lovers, and in fact played a central role in the loss of her legs. As for Narcissa, she’s an amnesiac, quite unaware of being Roderick’s runaway wife.
Prohibition will soon end south of the border, so Helen thinks her brewery could do well. With happy days almost here again, she decides to promote Port-Huntly Muskeg Beer with a contest to choose the world’s saddest music. Early rounds pit Siam against Mexico, Canada against Cameroon, and—in one of many wry throwaway gags—Poland against Germany. As other countries fall, Chester recruits their performers for his big American-melting-pot production number. Meanwhile, Fyodor presents Helen with a set of hollow glass legs that can be filled with beer. She’s delighted, but contentment can hardly prevail in Winnipeg—or in a Maddin film.
A pseudo-antiquarian, the director renders his sagas in grainy, distressed, sometimes tinted monochrome images. The result generally looks like a battered print of a long-lost German silent from the ’20s, so it’s fitting that one of Maddin’s most effectively sustained movies, 1992’s Careful, riffed on conventions of the German mountain picture. Saddest Music is less directly connected to a bygone cinematic genre, but its neo-retro sets and authentically cheesy special effects are faithful to Maddin’s pre-talkie muse. The flickering pictures don’t even quite mesh with the sound, which is crisp and contemporary aside from the fact that it features multiple versions of “The Song Is You,” a Hammerstein-Kern relic.
Saddest Music is continually inventive, and so packed with sound and vision as to invite multiple viewings. Yet at 99 minutes, it seems a bit too long for a Maddin film. Silent-cinema buffs and other sympathetic viewers should be entranced, yet you’d have to be totally in sync with the movie to maintain your enthusiasm to the very end. That the director’s thoroughly quirky sensibility is on constant display makes the experience as limiting as it is fascinating. Ultimately, it’s quite possible that only one person will ever achieve complete affinity with a Guy Maddin movie. CP