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Guy Maddin goes through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, into the twilight zone, beyond the great divide or maybe just deep into the nooks and crannies of his own two-strip Technicolor imagination in The Forbidden Room. Anyone experiencing Maddin for the first time with this nosedive into the nether-realms of cinematic esoterica might go as stark-raving mad as some of the hysterical characters that traipse through the melodramatic and fragmentary playlets the director has devised. But those familiar with his methods will smile and swoon at his fetishistic recreations of storytelling modes of yore, even if, at more than two hours, it begins to feel like too much of a good thing. This will play where Maddin films have always played, at festivals, specialized venues and anywhere else where esoteric and fanatically pursued obsessions are valued.
The overriding obsession that has determined Maddin’s unique style throughout his career is the transitional period between silent and sound pictures, that being the late 1920s. Silent cinema reached the zenith of its creative power at the end of its existence, but in the in-between period, primitive sound and sophisticated silent technique awkwardly co-existed, so that you might find talking sequences and old-fashioned titles cards within the same film.
It’s in this curious and little-regarded pocket of film history that Maddin, who here shares director credit with Evan Johnson, a young collaborator who has worked for him in various capacities since 2009, found the source and inspiration for his eccentric style. He uses dialogue but encourages florid silent-style gesticulating, as well as exposition and exclamation of many kinds via title cards, agitated cutting and any other techniques the silent masters stumbled onto. Russian montage, expressionistic German-style sets and accelerated musical tracks are, more often than not, brilliantly used in the service of telling exaggerated melodramatic stories that are archetypal, familiar and campy; sometimes they are delightful, even stirring, and at other times they fall flat with silliness.
The set-up for The Forbidden Room is as unexpected as surfing exhibition in Winnipeg: The poet John Ashbery, courtesy of Maddin regular Louis Negin, holds forth in a mock instructional film about “How to Take A Bath.” The action then moves to a tub of a different kind, a tiny submarine with a dwindling air supply in which the captain proposes that the crew members sustain themselves by sucking the oxygen out of pancakes. Where does Maddin come up with this stuff?
Some parts of The Forbidden Room may represent offshoots from two Maddin museum installation and/or internet projects, Hauntings and Seances, in which he imagines and creates sequences from planned or lost film projects, particularly from the silent and early sound era. Be that as it may, the sequences or episodes in the new feature play like shorts or excerpts and the film moves between them willy-nilly, connected only trangentially by the fractured memory of Margot (newcomer Clara Furey), an alluring young amnesiac rescued from a clan of cavemen by a woodsman (Roy Dupuis).
Subsequent episodes come and go as if in a fabricated fever dream that slips in and out between black-and-white and early color, immaculate images and damaged ones, brilliance and triteness. Out of nowhere come passages featuring parachuting onto an erupting volcanic island, a squid thief, a doctor imprisoned by women in skeleton outfits, Udo Keir getting a lobotomy to cure his butt-pinching habit and a typical silent film blind mother. Among the recognizable actors who turn up, some of them in multiple roles, are Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Maria de Medeiros and Elina Lowensohn.
On the craft side, special mention should be made of production designer Galen Johnson and costume designers Yso South, Elodie Mard and Julie Charland, whose inventive and diverse work on a meager budget supplies a great deal to the special look of the film.
Silent movies regularly ended with suspense climaxes, their effect increased by ever-accelerated cutting, and here Maddin and Johnson shoot the works with “The Book of Climaxes,” a demented montage of considerable brilliance.
With no through-story or strong continuity to hold it together, the film does go on a bit and becomes repetitive; it’s hard to remain stimulated by the same techniques, however imaginative, at such length without some connective dramatic tissue. There is a reason that the six-minute The Heart of the World may remain the single greatest thing Maddin has ever done. Still, for cinephiles and aficionados of the
singular, The Forbidden Room represents a very particular kind of feast.
Cast: Louis Negin, Charlotte Rampling, Roy Dupuis, Melissa Trainor, Kyle Gaithouse, Trelles Turgeon, Clare Furey, Neil Napier, Noel Burton, Marie Brassard, Darcy Fehr, Pamela Iveta, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Ahmarani, Judith Baribeau, Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Maria de Medeiros, Elina Lowensohn
Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
Screenwriters: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk
Producers: Phyllis Laing, Phoebe Greenberg, Penny Mancuso
Executive producers: David Christensen, Niv Fichman, Jody Shapiro,
Directors of photography: Stephanie Weber-Biron, Ben Kasulke
Production designer: Galen Johnson
Costume designers: Yso Soputh, Elodie Mard, Julie Charland
Casting: Rosina Bucci, Alexandre Nazarian