Moment to moment, the relentless cinephilic delirium of The Forbidden Room is every bit as intense as Guy Maddin‘s 6-minute short The Heart of the World (2000), but the miracle of the new two-hour-plus feature co-directed with Evan Johnson is that it’s persistently enthralling, often quite funny and never exhausting. The Forbidden Room seems to be the culmination or perhaps merely the 2015 version of the project Maddin began with Hauntings (2010), a collection of reimagined excerpts from films never realized by the likes of Murnau, Lang and Mizoguchi, and Seances (2012), further fragmentary homages to works made in those volatile years as the silents gave way to sound.
Dream logic reigns as one story stumbles into the next and we may be three or four stories in before we find ourselves working our way back out again, only to head off somewhere completely else. From the drain of a bathtub we plunge to the bottom of the ocean, where the panicked crew of a doomed submarine, low on oxygen, sucks tiny pockets of air from stale flapjacks. Story after story, the ultra-melodrama of expressionist masterworks as well as the lowest of long-forgotten B-movies is constantly jutting up against flippant comedy. Maddin’s flair for dredging up words and phrases from distant childhoods is part and parcel of his trademark penchant for abandoned cinematic styles; “flapjack” is simply funnier than “pancake” (just as “Lug Lug” is a funnier name than “Mr. Hyde,” but that’s another story).
The melodrama and the comedy are the constants; everything else is in flux. The vivid saturated color of one story may give way the black and white horror of another and each of them is nearly always unexpectedly interrupted by the next. Peer into an X-ray and the curvature of a pelvic bone is suddenly serving as the proscenium arch for another joke. Dialogue taut as a tightrope and title cards with to-die-for fonts are all but interchangeable. The never-ending cascade really ought to wear out its welcome, but Maddin and Johnson, drawing on the innovative imaginations of past giants and nobodies alike and calling on their own gut instincts and encyclopedic smarts, keep their unique alchemy bubbling with surprises.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“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,” writes David D’Arcy for Screen. “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.”
“The Forbidden Room may forego the hypnotically autobiographical thrust of recent efforts like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain!, but it feels no less personal for it,” writes David Ehrlich for Time Out. “Maddin has never worked with such an enormous cast (Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, and Clara Furey represent just a fraction of the talent involved), but it’s Mathieu Amalric who seems to have the most fun. The actor gleefully indulges in Maddin’s pure and peerlessly florid sense of melodrama, which here becomes a mechanism for foolhardy and paranoid men to ruin their lives as they attempt to rescue, love, or murder the beautiful women who didn’t ask for their help.”
This is “a majestic culmination of Maddin’s prowess in silent cinema tropes, a delirious, maddening rabbit hole of rippling nightmares that somehow, inextricably, fashion themselves into a cohesive narrative made up of cascading tangents,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
“Hazy, somewhat confused chuckles ought to accompany any viewing of this unwieldy picture, but the humor shouldn’t overpower the beauty,” writes Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian. “The mix of chewed-up, decayed film, blasted-out Technicolor two-strip, high-contrast fake-noir, angular expressionism and 30s Hollywood pomp will reduce design fetishists into a melted puddle. There’s also a recurring effect (which I presume to be a digital enhancement) where images unexpectedly swirl into grain and reform again before you can ask why…. The film’s apogee literally opens up The Book of Climax in a sequence of pure, knowing cinematic joy. Film-lovers, this ludicrous movie is for you.”
Meantime, Criterion has just released My Winnipeg (2007) on DVD and Blu-ray. Read Wayne Koestenbaum‘s essay, watch a clip (3’13”) and a new “cine-essay” from Maddin and Johnson, Elms (2’58”). Fresh reviews of My Winnipeg: Clayton Dillard (Slant, 4.5/5) and Noel Murray (Dissolve, 4/5).
Update: Christopher Bell interviews Maddin for the Playlist.
Updates, 1/31: The Forbidden Room “instantly became my favorite of this year’s fest, albeit just by a hair over The Witch,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, where Scott Tobias interviews Maddin. The “labyrinth of nested tales-within-tales-within-tales, which at one point gets something like eight or nine levels deep (it’s hard to keep track), calls to mind the classic 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript. And as in that film, the Russian-doll structure is at once a limitation and a great strength: It’s nearly impossible for a movie that keeps resetting itself to achieve any cumulative power, but it’s also nearly impossible for it to get stale or bogged down.”
“Anyone experiencing Maddin for the first time with this nosedive into the nether-realms of cinematic esoterica might go as stark-raving mad as some of the hysterical characters that traipse through the melodramatic and fragmentary playlets the director has devised,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy.
It’s “unlike any film I’ve experienced in my life,” adds Sam Fragoso at RogerEbert.com.
Updates, 2/11: For Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “as fervid as it is flaccid, close-ups and furious montage piqued and telling, but just as often over-extended and untelling, The Forbidden Room feels at once inexhaustible and completely exhausting: paradoxically, it’s a rapid-fire and constantly refreshing slog…. For me, above all, besides for the wonderful, zany humor, what I liked best is that the film is not some fevered regurgitation of cinema’s past but that it in fact suggests and indeed takes the form of an alternate history of the film: it poses a detour around 1927 that movies—American, Soviet, German, French and more—almost traveled down but never did. And like all movies that are successfully created around the idea of possibilities—be they the work of Alain Resnais or Raúl Ruiz—you come out of the theatre not thinking ‘Ah it could have been…’ but rather ‘What can it be?'”
Also in the Notebook, Adam Cook: “The Forbidden Room is a psychosexual plunge into a hidden space, wherever it is that Maddin’s mind and movies meet, secret desires made manifest as spectral figures and images.”
For Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door, “even if Maddin’s latest fever dream of the movies forsakes emotional depth for sheer multitude, there’s still something to be said for a film as high on the many and varied possibilities of cinema as this one is.”
“I found the experience of The Forbidden Room to unfortunately frustrate to the point of exhaustion,” writes John Fink at the Film Stage. “Simultaneously creating and destroying narrative, it lacks the wit of the best Maddin, while freeing him from the ambitious confines of narrative filmmaking that he seemed to tread towards in his pictures such as The Saddest Music in the World, Careful and his brilliant short Night Mayor.”