Alexandra Oliver on the poetry of Guy Maddin's films
THERE'S A COMMERCIAL from the early part of the millennium (for a sleeping pill called Rozerem) which continues to hover in my consciousness. A 40-something everyman stumbles into his kitchen in the middle of the night. Predictably, he is beset by insomnia. At the kitchen table sit Abraham Lincoln and a beaver (who is eating pie). In front of Abe and the beaver is a chessboard. In the background, a deep-sea diver is busy doing the dishes. The tagline for this memorable spot: “Rozerem: because your dreams miss you.”
My dreams miss me and I miss them. I’m getting older and parts of me are starting to droop, hurt, grey, wither or fall out. The climate’s going to hell in a hand-basket. Reality television and social media lord over all things, from politics to the self-image of children. The dollar’s tanking. Our southern neighbours are mired in one of the most nightmarishly acrimonious elections in their country’s history. Now that I’ve stopped dreaming—or rather, started dreaming less—my recourse is to immerse myself in the movies. It’s a rational choice, to my mind, a good substitute. But where are the good film-dreams hiding?
I’ve ceased to take popular direction as to what I should watch. I haven’t tuned in to the Academy Awards for over ten years but, like many people, I feel a half-compulsion to poke around in the residual gossip. What I’ve heard this time around hasn’t been encouraging. Not much has changed: the Oscars have basically stayed a parade float of sparkling blandishments and cultural homogeneity (where was Straight Outta Compton? Carol didn’t get anything?) whose primary frisson this time around occurred in the form of The Revenant’s director Alejandro Iñárritu giving the (comfortably dressed) Jenny Beavan the hairy eyeball as she sauntered up the aisle of the Dolby Theater—not giving a shit—to collect her Best Costume Design Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road. So much for popularity.
But popularity has never been my guiding principle; if it were, this writer’s choice of career and life direction would have been (for better or for worse) totally different. Ask anyone who Canada’s most “popular” directors are and they will invariably spool off the following list: Norman Jewison, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Sarah Polley, Denys Arcand, Deepa Mehta, James Cameron, and, most recently, the prodigiously unsettling Xavier Dolan. All have their respective merits, but the director who leaves the lot in the shade in terms of sheer bloody-minded daring is incontestably Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin, master alchemist of a cinema which is as arrestingly unorthodox as it is brilliant.
Maddin is the poet’s filmmaker. I discovered his work in 1988 when I escaped study hall at U of T to attend a late-night screening of his first full-length feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Shot in a manner reminiscent of silent directors such as Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dimitri Kirsanoff, G.W. Pabst, and F.W. Murnau, Gimli tells the story of the rivalry between two Icelandic-Canadian hospital patients in a run-down Manitoba hospital as they compete for the affections of a fleet of sylphine nurses. It’s a strange, moody affair, sweetly and crisply narrated, archly funny and yet weirdly sombre and touching at the same time—visual manna to a restless goth teen from the West Coast. The last twenty-eight years have seen a progression of similarly visionary offerings from Maddin, including the fondant-hued and authentically romantic Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), a collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, 2002), 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World and the much-lauded “docu-fantasia” My Winnipeg (2008). Add to that an inspiring collection of shorts (amongst them The Heart of the World, Sissy Boy Slap Party, and A Trip to the Orphanage) and you have a one-man antidote to the accusation that this great northern land executes cold caution in all things.
The essence of a Maddin film includes a number of visual tropes and cinematic devices from the infancy of cinema: irises, back projection, heavily-stylized sets and costumes, dramatic music and the liberal use of inter-titles, as well as acting that is melodramatic to the point of being ritualistic. In his newest film, 2015’s The Forbidden Room, these techniques are in generous evidence, and yet this latest foray is completely its own animal. Let’s begin by saying that it is Maddin’s most challenging film to follow. When I attended a screening last fall, I was under the influence of a cocktail of powerful anti-inflammatories taken for a torn rotator cuff, and dozed off in a puddle of my own drool. (Luckily, I was given a second chance.) The Forbidden Room’s plot (if it can be called that) is not directly linear; rather it is a pastiche of recreated lost films, fleshed out from an assortment of no less than 17 titles and bare plot-lines. These reconstructed narratives, rather than being placed end to end, instead weave in and out of their counterparts as recounted secondary narratives, thematic off-shoots and dreams. Filmed digitally on open sets in Montreal and Paris (pre-imagined through an interactive project named Seances, commissioned for Paris’ Centre Pompidou in 2012), edited and then reprocessed so that the “stock” approached a virtual state of seething degradation, The Forbidden Room brings together an impressive and varied cast in what is essentially a 130-minute cinematic passion play on acid. Without a doubt, it was my film of 2015.
The Forbidden Room begins with a John Ashbery-scripted monologue entitled “How to Take a Bath” (based on a Dwain Esper exploitation film of the same name), performed with salacious relish by a velvet-robed satyr named Merv (Maddin regular Louis Negin). Into the bathroom we go, into the bath, down, down into the murky waters, until the scene changes and we encounter the S.S. Plunger, a submarine in dire straits. The four-person crew is running out of air, the option of surfacing having been ruled out by the presence of a hazardous cargo comprised of pink “explosive jelly”. The captain is nowhere to be seen. The desperate crew arrive at the temporary solution of deriving extra oxygen from a batch of flapjacks (there are air pockets in the batter). And then the submarine door opens and in stumbles Cesare (Roy Dupuis), a freshwater-soaked woodsman from the forests of somewhere called Holstein-Schlesweig. Cesare’s story (which draws us into another narrative) involves his attempt to rescue the beautiful Margot (Clara Furey) from the clutches of a band of brigands known as The Red Wolves. Margot escapes (temporarily) into a dream and another narrative, ending up in a strange nightclub where, now revealed to be an amnesiac, she delivers a song about a Filipino vampire known as the Aswang. This, in turn, takes us to the next act, a pop ditty performed by Sparks telling the tale of a hapless soul (Udo Kier) so tormented by his Master Passion (Geraldine Chaplin) and the unquenchable urge to seize women’s bottoms, that he seeks the help of a doctor specializing in such matters.
Do things get stranger? Indeed they do. Story tumbles into story; in no particular order, here are some highlights. A female adventuress, seriously injured in a motorcycle crash, is treated at an institution known as Oracle Bones Hospital, only to have her saviour-turned-lover kidnapped by a sinister insurance broker flanked by women in poisonous skeleton leotards. Another female adventuress, identified as a “Lost Generation Attorney” (Céline Bonnier), crash-lands on a volcanic island where Margot is being held prisoner. A lonely middle-aged baron (Slimane Dazi) hires an aging fugitive Jacques Nolot) as a “Gardener’s Boy” and a melancholic almost-romance ensues. A man living in an elevator (Matthieu Almaric) frames his butler (Udo Kier, again) for theft, murders him, trims off his moustache and attempts to transplant it onto his own face. The moustache hairs, in turn, transport the ghost of the dead father back to his young son (Vasco Bailly-Gentaud) to bid a final farewell.
Everything in The Forbidden Room conspires to bewitch the viewer to the point of overthrow. Narrative moments are given grandiose proportions through fevered inter-titles (“MELTING BY THE MINUTE!”, “SQUID THIEF!”, “LUG LUG—HIDEOUS IMPULSE INCARNATE!”) which, at times, seem to exhaust the viewer by imposing a new set of expectations upon the proceedings. (My favourite here: Pancho and some other ex-boyfriend of Margot’s, now both blackened banana figures squatting atop her bed, hector the confused girl.) In a technique developed and put into play by Maddin’s co-director (and one-time assistant) Evan Johnson, images melt, crumple and re-flower. Things flutter before our eyes—a mysterious supine woman appears, ripples and vanishes. Who is it? She looks a lot like Charlotte Rampling….wait, it is Charlotte Rampling (as an ailing mother, a supporting character in another narrative thread). What we have here is not so much illusion as the illusion of illusion; actors are introduced (in inter-titles) as they appear and then (in some cases) reappear to take on other roles. Louis Negin and Udo Kier inhabit no less than five each. And yet, Maddin’s world, for all its showy phantasmagoria and narrative anarchy, is entirely free of the smugness which occasionally accompanies self-conscious and self-referential film-making. The emotion that filters through each character is distilled to its purest essence, whetted to a razor's edge. When the Dead Father (Kier) returns to his son and instructs him how to comfort the boy’s widowed mother through the use of a phonograph record comprised only of the phrases “yes”, “no,” and “maybe,” the heartbreak is disturbingly real.
Herein lies the secret of The Forbidden Room. Maddin’s “real” exists on a completely different plane from that inherent in documentary or in the neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica or Belgium’s Dardennes Brothers. In his past films, Maddin has shown himself as the dreamiest of directors and, as a logical result, one of the most inscrutable. In The Saddest Music in the World, we see the double amputee heroine fitted with glass legs filled with beer. In My Winnipeg we are taken aback by a raft of horse heads suspended in a frozen river. They are images that beget marvel and alarm and (very often) a sense of violent absurdity. There is a lot that is very, very funny. But where is Maddin the man in all this? Where does the actual intersect with the dream? Certainly My Winnipeg’s “docu-fantasia” trajectory showed us something lost and longed-for, embedded in family, childhood, and the lore of a beloved city. But The Forbidden Room reveals to us something else, a great passion, a great panic, a magnificently tangible vulnerability. As story shifts into story, as characters escape into new surroundings “through the doorway of a dream” (as Margot does), so we are pulled into a gyre of ever-consuming anxiety. Consider the words of French painter Odilon Redon, on the subject of one’s contemporaries shying away from total immersion in the subconscious and thus denying a work new and horrifying/illuminating/transcendent dimensions:
The artists of my generation for the most part have surely looked at the chimney flue. They have not offered all that could be added to the wall panel through the marriage of our very nature. All that surpasses, illuminates or amplifies the object and elevates the mind into the realm of mystery to the confusion of the irresolute and of its delicious restlessness, has been totally closed to them. They kept away, they feared everything pertaining to the symbolic, all that our art contains of the unexpected, the imprecise, the undefinable.
Different threads, coloured in the hues of many genres (romance, screwball, murder, action, exploitation) weave through The Forbidden Room.* How does one avoid mediocrity, the traps of convention affiliated with these genres, the “chimney flue” with nothing beyond it? How does one communicate the evoked emotions, make them as heady and disorienting as they would be, not in life, but in dreams, where everything is bigger and too beautiful and too brutal to bear? And what if one forgets? The Forbidden Room begins with the biblical citation from John 6:12, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost”. How does one remember everything? What of the films which are disintegrating in vaults or in store-rooms (as many of my grandfather’s nitrate prints are, back in Germany)? What about the titles that have slipped our minds, the whiffs of narrative and image that stay with us only under certain circumstances? How does one follow the scent of the “delicious restlessness”? This is the quest of the poet, as it is of the dream-filmmaker. It is a path of torment and titillation.
My young son, about a year ago, wrote a short story in which, in the midst of a war between two kingdoms, everyone stopped for lunch. What would happen if we put our own schedules and habits, our own emotional stamps, our particulars, our yearnings, our little wonderings, back onto stories, back onto film? Many of us can admit to doing things like speculating about what happens to the contented couple after the final titles roll or what hobbies the captured baddie will take up to pass the time in prison. Oftentimes it’s children who make these speculations, who whisper things like “If they all had lasers, they wouldn’t have been kidnapped!” or “What if they all turned into monsters right now?” There’s a priceless gold vein of this impulse running through The Forbidden Room, as is evidenced by the scene in which the Saplingjacks (“Aspiring Lumberjacks”), in their quest to rescue Margot, suggest tactics like conducting surveys and using a scale-sized model of the Red Wolves’ cave to plan their operation. What if things were turned completely around, reversed, retrieved, à propos of nothing? Consider the Penthouse Party which rescues Thadeusz, the elevator-dweller, from his certain arrest for murder. Or the incessant returning of the Dead Father (“A final, final, final farewell”) which neutralizes and then transforms into farce the pathos of its preceding moments. Nothing stays the same in this beautiful and exasperating film. But then again, neither do our dreams.
 These traits are warmly familiar to me—my own grandfather, David Oliver, was a silent film pioneer—and co-producer of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari—who ended up going on the run from the Nazis.
ALEXANDRA OLIVER is the author of Let the Empire Down (2016) and Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (2013). She is a contributing editor for Partisan.
*Correction: This reference to The Forbidden Room originally referred to the movie as The Hidden Room.