Guy Maddin is one of the most indelible of contemporary filmmakers. When he emerged, seemingly sui generis, from Winnipeg a little over 25 years ago, he was definitely a cult figure, and when classified, was often lumped in with David Lynch as a visionary dedicated (perhaps too stridently) to the strange and dreamlike. Lynch’s strangeness can be associated with America – his corn-fed sincerity is mixed with a fascination with the hidden, perverse aspects of America’s self-regard, an interest revealed in his tendency to mix hokum with shock, notably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and, of course, Twin Peaks. Maddin can equally be associated with Canada, but his connection to his homeland is revealed less by the subject of his films than by their form, which makes use of a deadpan absurdity that will be familiar to fans of Canadian comedy as practiced by SCTV or The Kids in the Hall (although Maddin goes far beyond the norm in his dedication to pursuing the lesser traveled byways of his psyche). Part of what has always made it hard to pin Maddin down is that his films have always had a meta-relation to cinema’s history and catalog of stylistic devices; that is to say, Maddin has always worked with certain techniques, and sought to achieve certain effects or visual styles, that have an indexical relationship to certain eras of cinema’s history (chiefly the silent period). Maddin has never been making replicas or parodies of such films, though, but neither has he been making pastiche, rummaging through cinema’s memory bank and grabbing devices or looks simply for novelty’s sake. No, what makes him much trickier (and marks him as a true artist) is that his films have some relationship to what they are parodying, but they are also wholly contemporary; unlike many contemporary films, which would deploy such a historical relationship ironically, though, Maddin’s films do not wink at the audience, nor do they pretend a sophistication against the naivete of the “originals.” Maddin is not unlike many other directors, many of them children of the various New Waves, who took filmic influences and made them their own, but unlike those other directors, he is not afraid to always push the boundary of what an audience will accept (his humor helps in this endeavor a lot). He is not afraid to be avant-garde, and thus tends to be more interested in the surface of a film than in depth. This is not to mean his films are shallow – I simply mean he is less interested in telling a story than in thinking about how and why we tell stories, and he is less interested in having the form serve the content than the other way around. When you think of a Maddin film, the first thing you think of is how they look – and though they all look different, we can still see, in our mind’s eye, an emblem of “how a Maddin film looks.”
Given that preamble, though, Maddin has changed, as any artist is liable to, over the years. His early films, in the intensity of their communication, felt more focused; the form and the content seemed more tightly woven. You will not, for instance, mistake Careful for the kind of mountain film the movie is obviously taking as its inspiration, but you do feel that the aesthetic world of that film is very meticulous, tight, and compressed. It is a film that lends itself easily to a “reading,” as the aesthetic of the film is consistent and unified, and relates very closely to the content (that is, “Maddin’s version of a mountain film narrative,” which we feel is commenting on various, perhaps latent, aspects of the genre). Many of Maddin’s earlier films have this feel. Around the turn of the millennium, Maddin’s style began to shift. The films became looser, often making use of visual stylizations that, while perhaps internally consistent throughout the film, felt less necessarily connected to the content (this is very true of his dancing version of Dracula, to my mind). The films began to feel more contemporary in affect, while they became a bit more willing to grab styles and visuals from many points in film history within the course of one film. His Coward’s Bend the Knee is an example of this, as it in some ways points back to silent film, like much of his work tends to do, but in a fairly non-specific way. It uses those techniques to do less work than they might previously have; instead, the film’s look seems more a way to unify what is, essentially, a perverse (auto)biopic. Part of this shift may have come about as Maddin became better known, and was called to rethink his work for a variety of formats – for instance, Coward’s Bend the Knee was originally conceived as an installation piece, with the film broken up into segments, each viewed through a Kinetoscope mock-up. All of this is to say that as Maddin has aged, his work has become more overtly personal, and he has perhaps felt less pressure to unify the form and content of his films, allowing them be more associational, poetic, and intuitive. Certainly many of his later films, The Forbidden Room among them, have a shaggy dog feel, a sense of brainstorming, barnstorming, a “lets get together and make a movie” improvisation that recalls the flavor of the Kuchar brothers in their heyday.
The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s shaggiest tale, and the widest ranging of his films in terms of styles and genres sampled. (I won’t even attempt to ennumerate the stylistic references, but they range from ’50s educational/exploitation films to French impressionism of the ’20s to silent jungle epics/exotica to the Surrealist avant-garde and onward). The film begins with a send-up of salacious “educational” films (a little less like the Kroger Babb variety and a little more like what you might have seen in school) called How to Take a Bath. The narrator (Maddin regular Louis Negin) stands jauntily in a hallway, his silky golden robe matching the wallpaper, and we get cutaways to the bather practicing his technique. Soon, the association with water takes over, and we find ourselves within the belly of our tale, a story of impending doom set on the submarine SS Plunger. There is a small crew, and a crazy captain who has isolated himself and “won’t be disturbed.” The crew is fretting over a cargo of explosive jelly they are carrying, which is threatening to explode because of decompression; things are so dire that they must resort to mining old flapjacks for the air bubbles trapped inside. While things look bad, the arrival of a stranger, the forester Cesare, seems to bring the possibility of resolution. The crew explores the submarine, with each chamber or room containing a story. Really, though, this is a vast understatement. The “story” of the submarine is a framing narrative on which to hang the rest of the tales, which multiply almost exponentially. Like Wojciech Has’s magnificent adaptation of Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript, this is a film about stories stacked within stories like nesting dolls. A tale will start, to be sidetracked by another story told by a character in the first, who in her story relates a dream, within which another tale begins… you get the drift. In The Forbidden Room, we have, hanging off the main submarine narrative, a story told by the forester about rescuing an “innocent” from a gang of bandits in the snowy climes of Bavaria, and another story about an amnesiac flower girl and the dread “jungle vampire, Aswang.” From these two branches sprout a thousand others (many thankfully including the wonderful Udo Kier!) featuring volcanoes, double crosses, blind mothers, talking bananas, and enough other material for hundreds of fever dreams. Most of the stories work themselves through, and we eventually end where we started, back at the tub, and the loop closes.
While perhaps his loosest film, The Forbidden Room is also Maddin’s funniest (well, too close with Cowards to call, maybe). I personally prefer his earlier, very dryly funny films as an aesthetic experience (Careful really is without peer, but even an unfunny, borderline boring film like Archangel I find incredibly strong overall), but his more recent work is just straight up enjoyable, fun with the added benefit of being a feast for the eyes. Unlike much of his earlier output, The Forbidden Room is thoroughly digital (thus co-director credit to Evan Johnson). While an impressive feat in terms of color and image composition, I must admit I did not like the melty, swirly “liquefy” effect that roams over the surface of the image consistently throughout the film. I guess it is supposed to suggest the porousness of dreams, or the instability of early film stock, but I found it distracting and too digital looking. I am unsure how familiar Maddin is to a wider audience; he seemed to have his finest hour during the release of 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, which many hailed, but I found vastly overrated and his weakest work, an overly long Kids in the Hall sketch without heart and with a grating performance by the usually credible Mark McKinney. While I would hate to handicap it, if I had to recommend one, The Forbidden Room might be the entree to Maddin’s body of film for the unfamiliar. It has near-constant novelty, an unending stream of strangeness, it’s ravishing to look at, and features many familiar faces (Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, the aforementioned Mr. Kier). As long as you aren’t hung up on conventional narrative, realistic psychology (or realistic anything), or “meaning,” The Forbidden Room will deliver an unforgettable experience. Just don’t ask me what happened.