The films of Guy Maddin exist in that strange half-conscious, semi-lucid state one enters when beginning to fall asleep during a film. Maddin masterfully captures the beauty of the way a dream might weave itself into the film as we softly fall asleep. His films are playful, experimental, and filled with mess and whimsy. And his formal style also possesses many of the same traits associated with dreams. Yet, it would be inaccurate to refer to his films as simply “dream-like.” They can, at times, have a stark sense of “wakefulness” to them, and for this reason, it would be more accurate to categorize them as “half-asleep,” a niche of cinema wholly unique to this underappreciated Canadian director.
Guy Maddin is a master of manipulating genre and style. For him this “half-asleep” aesthetic isn’t simply visual, it’s crucial to the way he develops the radically unreal worlds of his films. Maddin uses style and genre as elements of a film vocabulary that we all share, and he distorts this visual language not only because it unsettles us, but because there is something playful about using this vocabulary to form dreams rather than a traditional narrative. This is precisely why Maddin’s films are shot in a silent or early sound-era style. Two of the best examples of this playful attitude are Cowards Bend the Knee and Keyhole. It can’t be understated how outstanding these films are, precisely because they are so strange and whimsical.
Cowards Bend the Knee is a semi-autobiographical, femme fatale driven noir, overflowing with Oedipal crises and revenge. Maddin has been quoted as saying of the film: “Cowardice!! The New Sexy!!” This alludes to the director’s self-aware approach to directing, as well as the autobiographical nature of many of his films. In a clearly satirical look at himself, Maddin’s protagonist in Cowards Bend the Knee shares his name and attracts all sorts of danger and desire from the femme fatale thanks to his cowardice. Maddin might also be poking fun at himself for so successfully “stealing” from classic films in order to build his own, personal film vocabulary.
While Cowards Bend the Knee might champion Maddin’s hyper-aware directorial style, Keyhole is the quintessential example of his “half-asleep” aesthetic. The film’s Frankenstein-like mashup of genres is already enough to propel its narrative into dreamland; a mixture of the gangster and haunted house film, plus a sprinkle of melodrama and Homer’s The Odyssey make for what could be called a movie lover’s fever dream. The film follows the aptly named Ulysses (Jason Patric) as he makes his way through his own house, room by room, in search of his wife (Isabella Rossellini), who lies waiting in her bedroom somewhere in the heart of the house. Much like a dream, the film starts in media res. Ulysses’ gang, along with a bound and gagged young man, push themselves past a wall of cops and hole-up in the house. Dream-like qualities abound, and Keyhole, like many of Maddin’s other films, overflows with fades, distortions, and dissolves. This dreamy camera follows Ulysses through the house, but he doesn’t seem to know his way around. The space has the uncanny quality of being both familiar and foreign.
Ultimately, Cowards Bend the Knee and Keyhole are far more than just dreams. They are, above all, experiments with the language of styles and tropes of cinema. While Maddin “the coward” might cleverly steal from film history in order to devise his own projects, he manages to change and twist what he samples to such a degree that his films feel totally his own. The bizarre humor, kitschy surrealism, and excessive glamor are all unique to his films.
Maddin’s work is some of the most radical and groundbreaking of our time, but his movies also carry with them an intense sense of improvisation. They are movies made by a group of friends, simply for the incredibly freeing and euphoric experience of creating. This is one of the reasons why Maddin’s films are so dream-like. When movie lovers and filmmakers sleep, they dream in Maddin’s language. And as Maddin has shown, there is nothing better than gazing into the weird and wild dreams that only the craziest and most passionate film lovers can conjure.
Watch Now: Keyhole and Cowards Bend the Knee, as well as a selection of some of Guy Maddin’s best work, right here on Fandor.