Dir: Guy Maddin. Canada. 2015. 132mins
The Canadian director Guy Maddin resurrects movie history by revering it and mocking it. The Forbidden Room is a tour de force that takes Maddin’s ambition through a maze of magical melodrama. Even though Maddin’s aesthetic and his appeal come from his films’ journeys into the fragments of commercial cinema of earlier eras, The Forbidden Room, like so many of those films, is defiantly uncommercial.
The Forbidden Room is an amalgamation of fragments, all the more fragmentary because the pulsating film itself decays and decomposes as we look at it.
Yet the film should reach festivals and arthouses worldwide that welcome whatever this director does. Sections of it could end up in some form in art galleries or museums, which are another platform for the director, who recently made short films for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Inscrutability and absurdity are built into Guy Maddin’s plots. The effect in The Forbidden Room is compounded by the sheer number of stories. Inspired by a mandate from the Gospel of St. John to “gather up the fragments that remain, lest nothing be lost,” the stories are preceded by the burlesque mock-instructional prologue, How to Take a Bath, written by the poet John Ashbery (his debut in cinema) and hosted by the Maddin stalwart Louis Negin.
Through that satirical portal, the audience goes deeper into the realm of parody, shifting in and out of narratives for more than two hours, moving from one forbidden room to another.
From that bathroom, Maddin takes you into a submarine, which just happens to be stuck on the bottom of the sea. Oxygen is limited, but the captain doesn’t want to be bothered, so desperate fervor in the face of immanent death fuels Maddin’s melodrama – and fuels laughs, of course
From panic under the sea, Maddin moves to a mock-Wagnerian confrontation between the woodsman Cesare (Roy Dupuis) and subterranean disciples of the Red Wolf, who have kidnapped the young Margot (Clara Furey). Later we meet a doctor taken prisoner by women in skeleton suits, which leads us to an adventuress (a trope in silent films) whose body requires total reconstruction from a motorcycle accident, to the odd dynamic between a master (Mathieu Amalric and servant (Udo Kier). Kier plays multiple roles in the film, as do Negin, Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, and Romano Orzari. Few directors can keep acting ensembles loyal over the years, and far fewer at Maddin’s budgets.
As Maddin promised at the beginning, The Forbidden Room is an amalgamation of fragments, all the more fragmentary because the pulsating film itself decays and decomposes as we look at it. Those visual effects, complementing a cocktail of nostalgia, irreverence, and sex, are as beguiling as anything in the movies today.
Those visual flourishes come to us like a dream, or the spoof of one, where hopeless dilemmas are solved or simply fade unsolved into something else. Film history, Maddin’s box of paints, is also like a dream, or a parade of fragments. It’s no surprise that Maddin has gravitated toward art museums, where the principal job is to organise fragments on the walls.
But The Forbidden Room, although it’s sure to wind up in museums, is a movie, and it can’t entertain without performers who can act in styles that are as styliszed as its images.
Maddin’s filmmaking, always collaborative is even more so. His team, like his ensemble of actors, is as good as ever here. The film is officially co-directed by Evan Johnson, who collaborated with Maddin as of 2012 on the Seances series of films made at the Centre Pompidou. Robert Kotyk is listed along with Maddin and Johnson as a screenwriter. Despite those shared credits, the style and tone of The Forbidden Room will clearly feel like Maddin’s to anyone who knows his earlier films.
Much of that credit goes to cinematographers Stephanie Anne Weber Biron and Ben Kasulke, and to the film’s production designer Galen Johnson (who also wrote some of the music) for the look and feel of throbbing celluloid rustication throughout. Maddin has said that he’s tried “to achieve psychological realism with melodramatic methods.” He may be expanding the realm of psychological realism in The Forbidden Room, but his actors achieve that thanks to the many heightened atmospheres that his team creates.
No doubt Maddin will be faulted for the length of The Forbidden Room - by the standards of commercial and independent cinema, this requires some stamina - but Maddin has gotten used to that. The visual splendor that gorges the audiences can be dumbfounding. Yet Maddin is more likely to build his public from the sheer ambition of his film than to lose that audience because of its length.
Production companies: Mongrel International, Phi Films, Buffalo Gal Pictures, National Film Board of Canada, Telefilm Canada, Manitoba Film & Music, Georges Pompidou National Public Cultural Establishment, Kidam
International sales: Mongrel Media Charlotte@mongrelmedia.com
Producers: Phyllis Laing, Guy Maddin, David Christensen, Phoebe Greemberg, Penny Mancuso
Executive producers: David Christensen, Niv Fichman, Jody Shapiro, Francois-Pierre Clavel
Screenplay: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk
Cinematography: Stephanie Anne Weber-Biron_
Editor: John Gurdebeke
Production designer: Galen Johnson
Main cast: Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Graham Ashmore, Angela La Muse, Senyshyn Kimmi Melnychuk, Charlotte Rampling, Alex Bisping, Gregory Hlady, Kent McQuaid, Melissa Trainor, Kyle Gatehouse, Victor Andrés, Trelles Turgeon, Elina Lowensohn, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier