According to the feverish dream logic of the very first shot of the faux-silent film Cowards Bend the Knee, an insidiously entertaining bit of whimsy courtesy of Guy Maddin, all of life’s melodrama can be found within a single drop of sperm, so wash those cum rags at your own aesthetic risk. Cowards might not be the first time Maddin, Canada’s own titan of twee avant garde cinema, has focused his vision down to its most basic elements. (Most seem to agree that his five-minute The Heart of the World is his masterpiece.) But it is undeniably a much purer representation of his “devil may care” approach to film form than his other, more widely distributed recent film, the amusing but narratively overbaked The Saddest Music in the World. And it’s more insane.
The story, such that it exists at all, details a series of sexual temptations that befall “Guy Maddin” (played not by the director of the same name, but by the angularly handsome Darcy Fehr), a star hockey player for the “Madison Maroons.” When his girlfriend Veronica reveals that she’s pregnant, he takes her to the femme fatale Liliom’s one-stop hair-salon-slash-abortion-clinic shop. There, he is wooed by Liliom’s exotic daughter Meta, who claims that her father was murdered by Liliom and Guy’s hockey teammate Shaky and demands that Guy avenge his murder by letting the team’s mad physician sew her father’s pickled hands onto his own arms…and it just gets more stridently bizarre and overtly perverse and Oedipal from there out.
Devised by Maddin with the intention of installing it into a museum and forcing people to view it by peeping Nickelodeon-style (which would also give the film’s pinhole view of the proceedings—the drop of spunk on the microscope’s glass slide—greater resonance), Cowards is paradoxically retrograde and ultramodern. Its sexual playfulness and brazen lo-fi effect shots suggest a full-tilt Michel Gondry remake of 1920s pornography. Its hectic, stuttering cutting patterns are as much a throwback to the experimental Soviet montage of Vertov as they are a reflection of the glitched-out world of digital editing and DVD-R.
Individual shots are frozen, flipped, and reversed as though Maddin was making like DJ Shadow with the Avid, which is appropriate, as Cowards plays like Maddin’s own collage of fetishes: mildly homoerotic camp undertones are juxtaposed against a seeming (and would-be noxious) patriarchal treatise, overt emotional gestures bridge pre-irony and post-irony earnestness until they can’t possibly be taken as anything but window-dressing (reaching a giddy height with the fruity intertitles: “It was joy, joy, joy to meet someone new”). What does it all add up to? If your name isn’t Guy Maddin, then your guess is probably as good as mine (which would be, to boot: a series of shuddering histoire(s) du cinema orgasms). But the rest of us can all wade in his intoxicating, confounding surplus of cinematic theory remixes.