The Saddest Music in the World (15)<br/>Van Helsing (12A)

He's not unhappy, just obsessed
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The Independent Culture

The story goes that, as a baby, the great film-maker Jean Renoir was taken to see an early silent film and had to be carried out screaming. Perhaps a similar formative horror afflicted the young Guy Maddin. I like to imagine the Canadian film-maker as Winnipeg's Kasper Hauser, a foundling released from his lonely cell to see his first silent, and so traumatised that he was unable ever to watch a film again - yet compelled to make a career of reimagining cinema history entirely on the evidence of this one primal exposure.

The story goes that, as a baby, the great film-maker Jean Renoir was taken to see an early silent film and had to be carried out screaming. Perhaps a similar formative horror afflicted the young Guy Maddin. I like to imagine the Canadian film-maker as Winnipeg's Kasper Hauser, a foundling released from his lonely cell to see his first silent, and so traumatised that he was unable ever to watch a film again - yet compelled to make a career of reimagining cinema history entirely on the evidence of this one primal exposure.

No other theory explains the strangeness of Maddin's pastiche epics - such low-budget deliriums as Cowards Bend the Knee, a veiled autobiography of mutilation and ice hockey, or Careful, a tale of Alpine incest shot in marzipan pastels. Watching Maddin's films is like peering directly into his most intimate obsessions; Cowards actually started life as a peephole installation. But even the most personal bargain-basement auteur has to make a living, so Maddin has made an accommodation of sorts with the outside world. His new film The Saddest Music in the World stars known names - Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros - and originates in a script by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

Whatever Ishiguro's original scenario was like, Maddin and George Toles have presumably rewritten it beyond recognition, transplanting the story to Depression-era Winnipeg, "the world capital of sorrow". To this snowbound outpost - recreated on a sound stage, following Maddin's usual department-store-window aesthetic - comes failed Broadway producer Chester (Mark McKinney), a local boy with a dark secret. This brash cynic spies a money-spinning opportunity when his former lover, brewery magnate Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini), announces an international competition for musical melancholia.

But ill-will is in the air as Chester's father (David Fox, raging like a salty, demented John Huston) is the drunken ex-sawbones who amputed both Milady's legs, while Chester is dallying with the amnesiac wife (de Medeiros) of his brother Roderick, who is also competing in the guise of a beetle-browed Serbian cellist. Meanwhile, troupes of assorted international stereotypes - Mexican mariachis, African drummers, Scottish pipers - arrive for what promises to be a magnificent "cavalcade of misery". No synopsis can convey the uniquely uncanny nature of Maddin's films: to watch them is to see cinema history itself doped and hallucinating.

Maddin goes beyond mere camp: his emulation of antique film styles is invariably spot on, but here it's more a question of giddy stylistic cacophony, precariously held just this side of hysteria - as suggested by the musical finale, an Inuit bluegrass symphony with sitars, bagpipes and banjos. By the same token, Maddin brews a murky broth of Murnau, Hawks, Busby Berkeley and Tod Browning's fetishistic horror, with a dash of Edgar Allen Poe on the side.

Maddin is as obsessive a movie buff as Tarantino and perhaps even more of an overgrown child. But if Tarantino's nerdism suggests a will to grown-up mastery - to getting the references right, even outdoing the original - you sense that Maddin is only too happy to let his models master him. He's their sucker, delightedly bemused as his imagery eludes his control. Even the sexual perversity is magically infantile: here we get a montaged rhapsody of female legs, their disembodied coquetry inspiring an awestruck pre-adolescent fascination. Maddin invariably adopts the position of a small boy aghast at overpowering, often matronly women.

Indeed, Maddin resembles a precocious, over-imaginative child who hasn't quite got the hang of adult language (verbal or cinematic), yet has devised something better; he does for cinema what Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters did for the Victorian novel. Hence the bizarre dialogue (Chester, to a forlorn klezmer band: "Poor Yiddish! No country of your own, huh? Come on over and put a little spritz in America!"); hence too the epileptic editing, eruptions of harsh texture and abrupt jumps in and out of colour.

For all its seeming frivolity, this morbid blend of backstage musical and Jacobean tragedy shows a distinct edge of satire, with Canada's self-deprecating stuffiness pitched against American energy. When we see Roderick's one-man cello saudade pitched against his brother's cynically joyous cast-of-thousands showstopper, what we're really seeing is Maddin's own soulful obsessiveness brazening it out against Hollywood dominion. The Saddest Music in the World is bound to stupefy some, but if you have a yen for the joys of the hermetic imagination, then it will dazzle and confound you.

This week's equivalent of Chester's razzle-dazzle is Van Helsing, an attempt to make a Gothic 007 of Dracula's nemesis. Stephen Sommers's digital monster mash is no less indebted than Maddin to the great Hollywood fever dreams (Maddin did Dracula as a ballet film a couple of years ago). Reanimated here are not only Richard Roxburgh's foppish Dracula but also an unusually verbose Frankenstein's Monster, Wolf Man, and Mr Hyde, a cigar-chewing lummox with the voice of Robbie Coltrane. The first 10 minutes are a treat: in a spectacular homage to James Whale's chiaroscuro nightscapes, Sommers gives us the works: torch-bearing villagers, flying vampire brides, bug-eyed Igor. If only he'd got Abbott and Costello in there too, I'd have been ecstatic.

What follows isn't nearly as good, a relentless Symphonie Fantastique of derring-do and bone-crunching transformations. Jackman holds his own as a saturnine Byronic scowler, but proves low on charisma, while Kate Beckinsale swashbuckles gamely in bustier and boots.

The soundtrack is so cluttered with explosions and goulash-thick Transylvanian accents that you can't discern that much dialogue, but there's certainly a dearth of gags: Sommers's script could have used input from the Pirates of the Caribbean crew or better still, Mel Brooks. Cheerful if not cheap, Van Helsing will appeal to 14-year-old boys with a ghoulish streak, as will the related animation, computer game and theme park ride: you didn't think this was conceived as high art, did you?

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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