With The Saddest Music in the World, Canadian director Guy Maddin continues to carve his own niche as one of the most iconoclastic--and drollest--sensibilities working in movies today. From his debut feature Tales of the Gimli Hospital through such haunting curiosities as Archangel, Careful and last year's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, the Winnipeg native has followed his own distinctive aesthetic, one which affectionately replicates the archaic language and conventions of silent film, with a post-modern wink at today's audiences. Maddin's cult will welcome the news that The Saddest Music is his most ambitious outing to date, while remaining as willfully eccentric as anything he's ever done.

This time around, the idea stems from a screenplay by prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), reconceived by Maddin and his longtime writing partner George Toles. Isabella Rossellini plays Lady Port-Huntly, the glamorous owner of the Muskeg Brewery, who announces an international competition to crown the world's most melancholy music. ("If you're sad and you like beer, I'm your lady," she vamps in the contest promo.) The Depression-era tourney lures two men from the beer baroness' tragic past: representing America, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a sleazy would-be Broadway impresario who was once her lover, and representing Canada, Chester's father Fyodor (David Fox), an alcoholic former surgeon who also had a fling with the Lady. The trauma that unites them is a long-ago car crash which resulted in the drunken Fyodor mistakenly amputating both of Lady Port-Huntly's legs.

Also drawn to the Winnipeg event is Chester's brooding older brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), who is mourning the death of his son and the disappearance of his wife--and representing Serbia in the guise of the acclaimed cellist Gavrillo the Great. Completing this odd collection of characters is Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester's comely amnesiac girlfriend, who is eventually revealed to be Roderick's absent spouse.

Though dozens of countries are entered, the contest becomes a vehicle for the three Kent men to compete for the attentions of Lady Port-Huntly and Narcissa. Fyodor loses early to a group of Africans, but he seems to gain an edge when, out of remorse, he creates for the hops queen a pair of prosthetic legs made of glass and filled with beer. But his romantic hopes are dashed when Lady Port-Huntly succumbs to the dubious charms of the slick-talking Chester.

The storyline is, of course, absurd, but no less absurd--or entertaining--than those of many a silent melodrama (i.e., Tod Browning's The Unknown, in which Lon Chaney has his arms amputated in an ill-advised plan to win Joan Crawford). The Saddest Music in the World (and most of Maddin's oeuvre) is camp, no doubt, but camp so strange and wondrous that it crosses into another artistic zone. Building his whimsical sets in the same bridge-works factory where he shot his breathtaking 2000 short The Heart of the World, Maddin creates an expressionistic mini-Winnipeg, then shoots it in grainy black-and-white (with occasional vignettes simulating color tinting) that at times looks like a Mars space probe. An added delight here is the music: The wild matchups of Siam vs. Mexico or Serbia vs. Scotland result in some uncanny juxtapositions and collaborations, all using musicians recruited in Winnipeg auditions.

The actors all play it straight, even when called on to utter the most ridiculous of lines. It's a pleasure to see McKinney of the inspired Canadian comedy team Kids in the Hall in a lead role, however irredeemable his arrogant American wannabe character may be. De Medeiros, best-known as Bruce Willis' girl in Pulp Fiction, is adorable as the perpetually confused Narcissa, and Maddin veteran McMillan has the perfect doomed intensity as Roderick. Best of all, the film makes a great showcase for the regal Rossellini, who mines all the comedic possibilities of her power-mad amputee and proves herself a tremendous good sport. ("I can feel your touch--it makes me bubble," she says of her carbonated legs.)

The Saddest Music is proudly outside the mainstream, but adventurous audiences looking for a uniquely diverting time will be glad Guy Maddin is staying the course.

-Kevin Lally