Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Canadian Film Review: The Forbidden Room (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey

If you're already a Guy Maddin fan, then all I need to say about The Forbidden Room is that it's Guy Maddin's most recent movie and that should be all that you need to know. If you aren't a Guy Maddin fan, The Forbidden Room isn't likely to make you one, as it's perhaps the most "Guy Maddin-y" movie Maddin has ever made. If you simply haven't experienced a Guy Maddin film before, I wouldn't recommend starting with this one, which is probably his least accessible, although it is quite the sensory experience. Maddin has never been a filmmaker hemmed in by convention, but he feels particularly unleashed here, unfolding a series of narratives out of each other and more or less exploding them and blending them all together in the finale. It is a weird (often hilariously so) movie, but if you like your movies weird, this is the one for you.

With The Forbidden Room, Maddin doesn't even take his time getting things to a weird place, starting the movie with an excerpt from an instructional film called "How to Take a Bath" in which a man (Louis Negin) describes how one goes about the process of bathing (amazingly, this segment is inspired by an actual short film from 1937 called How to Take a Bath). It then moves on to what can be described as the main plot, if The Forbidden Room can actually be described as a having a plot at all. Here, the members of a submarine crew come to terms with the looming certainty of their deaths, either as a result of losing oxygen (they try to make up for the lack of it by eating pancakes, which contain "pockets of air") or as a result of trying to surface and being exploded by their volatile cargo (500 pounds of blasting jelly), and debate whether they should disturb the Captain. Their discussions are eventually interrupted by the sudden arrival of Cesare (Roy Dupuis), a woodsman who has made it to the bottom of the ocean by means that aren't important (because this isn't the kind of movie where something like that would be important). Now among them, Cesare tells them his own story about his love for a woman named Margot (Clara Furey) and his efforts to rescue her from a the "Red Wolves" who have taken her.

In Cesare's story, he tries to rally other apprentice woodsmen ("saplingjacks") to form a posse to collect Margot, whom they all love, and then tries to form a team of men of various talents to get the job done, but each time finds himself entering the Red Wolf den alone. As part of his attempt to save Margot, he tries to join the pack and participates in various contests to prove his value (this feats of strength montage is one of the film's ridiculous highlights), and this story opens out into a new one as Margot goes to sleep and begins to dream, that new story eventually opening into another one and then another one, and so on. Written by Maddin, Johnson, Robert Kotyk, and John Ashbery, with Kim Morgan acting as story editor (normally this many writers on a project would be a bad sign, but here it's merely indicative of how much the film is doing and the number of visual and storytelling styles it's dealing in), The Forbidden Room has the structure of a Russian nesting doll and presents stories of a man kidnapped by "women skeletons," of a reckless, fun-loving heiress who ends up on an island where breaking the rules leads the locals to leave her fate to their angry volcano, of a mustache trying to bring comfort to the widow of the man whose face it used to rest upon, to the story of a man who falls in love with a drug addict and begins watering down his deathly ill mother's medication in order to feed his lover's addiction, and many more.

The various stories of The Forbidden Room aren't given equal time or development, with some reduced to atmospheric fragments, but they function together to create a dreamy current down which the viewer travels. Trying to make sense of everything while you're watching it is a bit of an exercise in futility; it's better to just let the bizarre collection of images wash over you and go with the film's unique flow. Recognizable faces come and go through the course of the stories - Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and Caroline Dhavernas all make appearances - further reinforcing that dreamy feeling of things being at once familiar and completely foreign as the film goes deeper and deeper and deeper into its premise before finally presenting a series of climaxes that explode the movie back to where it started, with the thrilling conclusion of the step-by-step process of taking a bath (sight unseen, the "How to Take a Bath" stuff must sound strange; rest assured: it's even stranger when you see it).

The Forbidden Room is a film that is perhaps best described as an "experience." You might not always "get it," parts of it might be frustrating and/or hard to follow, some parts will make you laugh, others will make you scratch your head, some are startlingly beautiful, others mesmerizing for their sheer oddness. By the end, though, it's hard not to feel sort of exhilarated by what you've just seen because it is so intensely unlike anything else you'll see. The Forbidden Room is filmmaking that doesn't play by the usual rules, and which challenges you not to be charmed by its anachronistic aesthetic and bizarre sense of humor. The Forbidden Room isn't my favorite Maddin movie (that honour would go to either The Saddest Music in the World or My Winnipeg) and I wouldn't rank it as Maddin's best movie, but if you're a Maddin fan, you won't be disappointed by what he has to offer here.

No comments: