Dreaming of Cheese through the paradox of rabbit holes

Review – The Forbidden Room

Margot escapes the wolves through the doorway of a drforbiden.jpgeam.” This is an entirely representative intertitle from The Forbidden Room, another
crazed cheese-dream of early cinema from the Canadian auteur Guy Maddin – credited here with collaborator Evan Johnson – renowned for his freaky mashups and pileups of cine-fetish silent movie pastiche. (Another intertitle is: “Eve is arrested for murder and squid theft.”)

The colour will flicker and degrade like damaged nitrate stock. Shout lines will twirl towards the audience as if the film has decided to include its own trailers. Images and faces will wobble and flare and explode, as if celluloid has been trapped in the gate of an old-fashioned projector and caught fire – but what follows is not the traditional burned-around-the-edges hole of nothingness but more wild imaginings, shaping and re-shaping themselves like mercury. It is a silent cinema with all sorts of noise: the dialogue being overdubbed. It is sometimes brilliant and sometimes boring, but even the boring parts have an eccentric sparkle. I have been agnostic about Maddin’s work in the past, but this has made me a believer. Or very nearly. Watching it, I remembered what TS Eliot is said to have remarked about Finnegans Wake: “One book like this is enough.” One film like this is enough, and I’m inclined to say that those new to Maddin should probably start with this experimental extravaganza, and finish with it, too, in case the experience of watching a lot of other very similar films takes the edge off.

Even with The Forbidden Room, you can see how it could finish after 20 minutes or go on all night. Yet this is part of its shaggy-dog comic effect. The movie is a succession of scenes and characters with no logical relation to each other, or perhaps it is truer to say it is an infinite recession of universes, rabbit holes within rabbit holes, worlds folded inside each other like a Russian doll. A mock instructional film about taking a bath is succeeded by a tense scene concerning a submarine deep under water, carrying highly flammable gelignite which could explode at any time; a woodsman shows up – having evidently found a portal from his fairytale forest into the submarine – with a story about needing to rescue a woman called Margot from wolves, and she is being “held in the pink warm centre of a cave”. And so it goes on.

Themes of insomnia, elided with feminine vulnerability, might appear to suggest Lynch; dark monochrome shadows and menace gesture towards FW Murnau and Robert Wiene. But individual allusions are not the point. The effect of this movie resides in its generic texture, its feel, the weird sensation conveyed by its palimpsest of dozens of fabricated surfaces. Maddin doesn’t often overtly strive for comedy, but when he does, he is successful. I loved the petulant dispute between the woodsmen about who exactly is going to rescue Margot: it reminded me weirdly of Larry David’s old standup routine about the sheriff phoning round his friends, trying to get a posse together. The tasks set for the woodsman, such as bladder slapping, had something very Pythonesque.

This nonsensical labyrinth of variously purple, archaic and absurd tales naturally incorporates numerous cineaste in-jokes. It runs the usual Maddin gamut of stylistic nods to (primarily) the late silent and early talkie periods, complete with a whopping amount of explanatory intertitles (perhaps outweighing actual spoken dialogue), artificially scratched/aged “film stock,” use of obvious miniatures, approximation of two-strip Technicolor and so forth. Even more than most of the Winnipeg auteur’s efforts, “The Forbidden Room” is a toy box for fans of film history, its illusion of a Russian-doll structure (though there’s really no innermost sanctum here, title notwithstanding) furthering a sense that every reference here leads to an even more esoteric one.

Delightful and ingenious as much of this is on a moment-to-moment basis, it becomes somewhat wearying over the long haul (though pic has been trimmed a bit since the 131-minute version that bowed at Sundance last January). While one can only admire the puzzle assembly of John Gurdebeke’s lively editing, there really is no destination or master design to be had here. “Room’s” more juvenile japes, as well as its most charmingly daft ones, would all seem more inspired if delivered in smaller doses. With his resistance to the very idea of conventional narrative coherence and resolution (beyond mocking their cliches), it’s no wonder that the most perfect film Maddin has created so far is probably 2000’s “The Heart of the World,” an epic of quasi-archival fetishism just six giddy, succinct minutes long.

My reservations about Maddin persist: an uneasy feeling that the mannerisms of early cinema are being presented in ironised, postmodern form, without the sincerity and simplicity that originally gave this cinema its overwhelming popular force. But there’s no doubt that through sheer persistence, Maddin has moulded this pastiche into a movie language of his own: a neo-proto-cinema dreamspeak. It has to be seen on the big screen. The movie reaches a dramatic peak of sorts with images of two blimps that collide to the strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead.” After all the silliness, “The Forbidden Room” ends on a note of comedic grandeur

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