April 28, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hard to say who’s luckier — those who have seen the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin before and know what to expect, or those who haven’t and for whom The Saddest Music in the World serves as an eye-popping introduction. Familiars can rest assured that the singular, Winnipeg-rooted Maddin is up to his usual wiles, creating a phantasmagorical melodrama with a visual style meticulously refracted through a black-and-white German expressionist sensibility, singed with camp and embroidered with Dada. Unfamiliars can abandon themselves to the gorgeous obsessions of this sad, mad story: that of a bitter, legless beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini, every auteur’s best ally) in frigid Depression-era Winnipeg, who stages a kind of musical Olympics for the country that can evoke the gloomiest tune. (The original screenplay is by Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro.)

Before the sobbing is through, enhanced by haunting musical variations on the warbler ”The Song Is You,” a sleazy Broadway producer (Mark McKinney) will have reunited with his father (David Fox) and brother (Ross McMillan); an amnesiac nymphomaniac (Maria de Medeiros) will have remembered something inconvenient; and the limb- deficient baroness will have been outfitted with glass legs filled with beer. And each frame of Maddin’s saga will have yielded a memory of cinemania past, even for those with no clear memory of the old movies that echo in this alluring new one.

99 minutes
Guy Maddin
Isabella Rossellini,
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