Keyhole: Toronto Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Maddin completists may be intrigued but to the uninitiated, “Keyhole” will likely be bewildering.

Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini star in Guy Maddin's supernatural film from Buffalo Gal Pictures.

Given how many North American independent films get trotted out at festivals that are contrived, trite or formally uninventive, it feels churlish to grumble about a filmmaker like Guy Maddin, who marches defiantly to the beat of his own drummer. But the Canadian maverick’s latest, Keyhole, is an exercise in opaque supernatural storytelling that’s as frustrating as it is beguiling.

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In the black and white film’s opening moments, over the howling wind and lashing rain of a stormy night, a voice whispers, “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” That refrain signals a journey out of Homer, but the odyssey this time is between dreams and murky reality, through a haunted house crawling with the ghosts of dead relatives. The other primary inspiration of Maddin and co-screenwriter George Toles is “The Poetics of Space,” a 1958 book by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard that explored the emotional sensations generated by domestic environments.

In an unexpected but surprisingly apt casting choice, Jason Patric cranks up the Hollywood tough-guy shtick as 1930s gangster Ulysses Pick, who returns home in the middle of a shootout with cops. When survivors and fatal casualties all are asked to line up against a wall, it’s clear that death doesn’t necessarily eliminate anyone from the picture in this creaking mansion, its boards groaning and sighing with the weight of memory. We’re informed that sorrow lingers long after the inhabitants of a house have departed. 

Ulysses is accompanied by two teenagers, Denny (Brooke Palsson), a drowned girl brought along as his guide to the past, and a bound-and-gagged boy taken hostage, whom he fails to recognize as his youngest and last surviving son, Manners (David Wontner). His other three children are dead and his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini, doing high melodrama) mourns them in a locked room upstairs, where Ulysses struggles to reach her. The labyrinthine house is full of enemies living and deceased, chief among them Hyacinth’s elderly father (Louis Negin), chained naked to her bed.

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While this cracked world is rife with treachery and sordid sexual practices, there’s also plenty of Maddin’s winking humor. “I feel charged,” says Ulysses after being strapped into a bike-powered electric chair built by Manners as a school science project. Ulysses’ dialogue often sounds like a parody of lines that could belong to Bogart or Cagney. “You’re all froth and no beer,” he sneers at a traitor among his band of goons and molls.

In the past, Maddin has primarily shot his work on Super 8 or Super 16 to emulate the flickering, granular look of silent or early sound-era films. On Keyhole, his first time filming entirely with digital technology, Maddin and cinematographer Ben Kasulke use the restless, roaming eyes of small, easily maneuvered  5D cameras to create dense textures full of superimposed imagery and jerky movement, matched by editor John Gurdebeke’s ragged jump cuts and constant dissolves.

There’s certainly an aesthetic consistency to Maddin’s surreal universe, which as always is a seductive place in which to get lost. Up to a point. His most widely seen films, such as Cowards Bend the Knee or The Saddest Music in the World, share some kind of internal logic to anchor their wild flights of eccentricity. But the stubbornly cryptic Keyhole is literally a series of locked doors, dead-end corridors and nightmarish repetitions that becomes more laborious to follow the nearer Ulysses gets to his destination. While Maddin describes the film in the accompanying press notes as a step toward more conventional narrative, it feels like a step farther away.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Buffalo Gal Pictures
Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Kevin McDonald, Johnny W. Chang
Director: Guy Maddin
Screenwriters: George Toles, Guy Maddin
Producers: Jody Shapiro, Jean du Toit
Executive producer: Phyllis Laing
Director of photography: Ben Kasulke
Production designer: Richardo Alms
Music: Jason Staczek
Costume designer: Heather Neale
Editor: John Gurdebeke
Sales: Entertainment One
No rating, 94 minutes