Film Reviews

The Forbidden Room Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

Rating - 8/10
The end-result that iconoclastic writer-director Guy Maddin described during his February 2014 visit to UW-Madison campus is The Forbidden Room, a re-imagining of 100 hundred-year-old lost films.  It's in the title, really, lifted from a 1914 short by Allan Dwan, and the preliminary intertitle quote from John 6:12 ("Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost").  Literally, this labyrinthine experiment replaces the metaphorical rabbit hole with a bathtub drain, as b/w, sepia tone, and color-treated images psychedelically swirl into one another on mutated nitrate stock. The unique collage-like anthology, comprised of a series of micro-narratives, may prove to be esoteric at first glance; however, the director's offbeat sense of humor about not only the material but the entire project in itself (for which he recruited newcomer Evan Johnson as co-director) is infectious. It's a film that dares audiences to become ecstatically lost in its briny maze of cineaste madness.
Keenly enough, critic Mark Peranson cites inspiration from poet/playwright Raymond Roussel, who's known to frequently indulge in parenthetical asides.  If Maddin's loaded filmography is any indication, he is equally obsessed with exclamatory(!) stylistic diversion; it's pertinent in a film that continually synthesizes silent and sound cinema in rapturous, volcanic eruptions of pure curio.  Despite all the promotional press about its imitation of past modes/forms, an undeniable ingenuity acknowledges our present luxury in viewing cinema with special regard to surrealism and dream logic.  The emphasis in The Forbidden Room is, aptly, all upon location, whether in a captain-less submarine, wintry forest, stalactite cave, volcanic island, experimental clinic, or spacious apartment.  Spelled out in the first fifteen minutes, the "doorway of a dream" allows its characters to freely pass from one plane of existence to another.
Direct homages to/parodies of brooding German Expressionism and early maudlin romance are abound, as scenes wash over one another following the opening skit, How to Take a Bath, penned by John Ashbery, and delivered by a bare-chested Louis Negin as Marv.  From distinctively heroic lumberjacks/saplingjacks in the Holstein-Schleswig tundra, a squid thief on a tropical island with routine sacrifice to a rear-projected volcano god, to pettier insurance scams and frame-ups, The Forbidden Room's zany mischief comes over as the negative image of a Wes Anderson production.  Both erudite directors romanticize classic cinema, but the difference is all in the regard for opulently formal versus anarchic visual presentation. The fluidity of Maddin and Johnson's Soviet-style montages isn't perfect; the film runs about fifteen minutes too long (as acknowledged in the interview that accompanies Peranson's review).  Yet the way in which the co-directors utilize absurd premises to comment on the profundity of human experience, entangling personal and cinematic memory, is worthy of awe.
Characters plagued by amnesia or dissociation permit the two collaborators to manipulate devices like the flashback and memory-jog.  When Dr. Deane (Gregory Hlady) reveals a literal representation of his patient Florence (Karine Vanasse)'s inner child (in a magical gesture that parallels the film's intention), the flashback becomes twisted and folds over to exist in the present.  Separate actions prompt The Forbidden Room to actively initiate a kind of self-rewind, as if a simple sensation allows a flow of blood to soak up and revive parts once dead on the operating table.  The same level of ingenuity can be found in Jafar Panahi's most recent Taxi Tehran (2015).  Both films are love letters to the lost in the grand sense of the word; their magic tricks embrace self-awareness to amplify cinematic themes of time and space that have existed for over a hundred years even in the face of loss/deterioration.  Maddin's insatiable love for the medium doesn't materialize in simple recreation or re-presentation, and for that he is most valuable.
Maddin's laudable M.O. is further compounded in his successful satires of endlessly trite whodunit murder mysteries in the last century of movies and many, many current television series.  Such is the case in the latter half with the hapless Thad (Mathieu Amalric), who shoots his butler (Udo Kier) after his girlfriend becomes wise to his absentmindedness.  Or, in a comparably ridiculous scene, Dr. Warren (Andreas Apergis) offers a bust of the Roman god Janus to his indifferent fiancée Jane (Sophie Desmarais).  Here, Maddin's mindfully winking eye and offbeat humor inform Warren's obliviousness; head over heels for the inanimate bust of the god of doorways and transitions (instead of fair Jane), he orates about Janus' remarkable ability to "look into the past and future."  A better summary for the ambitions of Maddin and The Forbidden Room cannot be conjured.