Canadian director and installation artist Guy Maddin’s bizarre yet affectionate pastiche of all those films from his favourite filmmaking eras that never got made – yet somehow seem uncannily familiar.
In The Cutby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s a phrase in my notes from the screening of The Forbidden Room – “brain exploding”. Whether it was mine or in the film, I’m not sure. Imagine that in the late 1920s/early 1930s you picked up offcuts of film left on the cutting room floor. Then in the late 1950s/early 1960s you did it again. And then –blindfold – you edited them all together into a two-hour feature. That’s The Forbidden Room in essence. It’s a non-linear movie collage of archetypes and subverted clichés, a post-production tour de force – and it must have been a hoot to make.
It starts with a middle-aged man in a rakishly tied house coat (Louis Negin) giving instructions on How to Take a Bath in the style of a 1960s public information film shot in saturated Technicolor. It segues into a melodrama set in an expressionistically lit submarine with doomed submariners eating flapjacks for their trapped air pockets when a lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) mysteriously appears and then exits into a snow storm in a forest where, now coonskin-capped, he enlists aspiring woodsmen to search for kidnapped Margot now held in the lair of the red wolf.
And so it carries on, a series of more stories within stories, overlapping, cutting from one to another, silent or with only snatches of stylised dialogue, the only narrative being hyperbolic, absurd intertitles in “empurpled” prose, to quote Maddin’s coinage – “Squid Theft!”, “In polite company a gardener boy always conceals his manacles” – until words begin to lose their meaning.
The snippets of stories seem strangely familiar, oddly reminiscent of films you think you may have known. The supposedly vintage excerpts of the late silents/early talkies have been treated in lengthy post production to look as if it’s found footage that has deteriorated in its film cans and printed from a scratched negative. Faux clips from silent cinema are shakily shot with flickering lighting and crude jump cuts, and a persistent, primitively recorded soundtrack of muffled disorientating music, which sometimes sounds as if it’s being replayed backwards. There’s the silent film cliché of the blind woman, but here her son is forced to wear his father’s moustache – and it’s a moustache that dreams.
There’s a Pacific island adventure with an erupting volcano worshipped by primitive tribes requiring virgin sacrifices shot in the lurid glare of two-strip Technicolor and filmed with all its associated tropes. The Birthday Penthouse party could have had the same inspiration as the party scene in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. A high-contrast, fake-noir expressionistic pastiche section alludes to early Dracula movies and in another, a doctor is pursued by female skeletons. Images randomly pulsate and shift as if they’re trying to burst out of the screen.
Inexplicably, conventional stars of various nationalities briefly flit across the screen in fragments of roles – Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Udo Kier. It’s a demented montage, “a boggling puzzlement” that defies you to search – fruitlessly – for a narrative thread. And it’s a magnificent, maybe misguided, tour de force that exhausts its ingenuity and runs a little too long, so that, mentally battered by trying to make sense of it, for the last half hour all you can do is stare at the screen and its wonderful box of delights in mute, slack-jawed acceptance until at last you stagger out into the real world. In other words, it’s a must-see.
The Forbidden Room is released on 11th December 2015 in the UK