What is home, and if we want to leave but can’t, why not? So asks Guy Maddin in a “docu-fantasia” about his native and lifelong city, My Winnipeg, his third consecutive feature with a protagonist named Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), here glimpsed throughout as one of several dozing, twitching night-train passengers headed out of the snowy, bone-freezing capital of Manitoba. But the dominant Maddin is the narrating filmmaker, more palpably present than usual in the sound of his voice, bemoaning a lost golden age of his hometown—“the heart of the heart of the continent”—and as usual excavating his memories, family history, and sense of self through the visual tropes of ’20s and ’30s cinema, and the straight-faced absurdities of the tall tale. Unlike some of his recent movies, My Winnipeg isn’t “silent,” or even confined exclusively to the distant past, but it gives its subject a fixed, eternal identity. “IF ONLY…” a recurring title card reads; to Maddin, his Winnipeg, built on disappointments and losses, is the birthplace of regret. By turns madcap and painfully nostalgic, it’s at heart a mournful fugue to origins, aging, and something like forgiveness, familial and civic.
Maddin—that is, the questing narrator, who might bear roughly the same relationship to the director as the film’s fanciful setting does to the real city—remembers living over the hair salon operated by his mother and aunt, a “gynocracy” whose air vent sends the odors of talc, shampoo, and purses into his room, all “the smells of female vanity and desperation.” And so he begins exploring his identity as a Winnipegger via the “domestic experiment” of moving his octogenarian mother (Ann Savage, the wicked dame in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 Detour) back into his childhood home, along with young actors hired to play her children for the reenactment of their youthful crises. (How long-dead Dad is present is best discovered yourself.)
Difficult mothers appear in Maddin’s films as reliably as infuriating or absent fathers in the work of Wes and P.T. Anderson, and Savage, though her acting shows rust, gives a noirish bite to her harpy’s purple tirades. Deer fur and blood on the fender of her daughter’s car isn’t sufficient evidence to explain a late-night return from a date; Mother Maddin knows it’s just a metaphor made visible for “real action” in the back seat. “Was it the boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?” she hisses. This house-lab episode is suitably brief, as Mom’s role on a long-running local TV soap illustrates the futility of attempting to excise trauma at the hearth: On every daily episode, a would-be suicide (Fehr again) is talked off a ledge by his mother (Savage). The old woman’s face, seen looming in the skies by sleepy Guy from the train window, and seeming psychic powers do not suggest a dragon that can be tamed or slain.
Though the two rivers at whose confluence the city stands are linked by a dissolve to maternal vaginal folds (“the Forks, the lap, the fur”), it’s in the urban landscape itself, its history, and its punishing winters that the film locates older, less familiar wounds. In his Winnipeg, Maddin sees the world’s leading city of sleepwalkers, who are permitted to gain entry to any of their past residences with a biographical set of keys they commonly carry. Its daunting snows turn a maze of unnamed, unpaved back alleys into an alternate system of streets by cab-riding citizens. Other historical episodes ooze Freudian sublimation and repression: city fathers hold séances at the provincial government HQ, culminating in a zombified ballet; bare-legged girls at a convent school play a key role in post-WWI labor riots; the amusement park is leveled by stampeding bison, panicked over a male-male coupling in the herd; the 1930s mayor judges a male beauty contest in the Hudson’s Bay department store restaurant amid tables of cooing matrons. And similar levels of subterranean mystery are plumbed from Guy’s boyhood. The municipal swimming pool for boys, in a basement beneath the girls’, is the site of a nude group frolic, title-carded “The Dance of the Hairless Boners.” Working as a towel jockey at the local hockey venue, Guy meets a Soviet ice idol in the showers and takes his jersey home to rapturously don it. (Maddin continues to display the queerest sensibility of any contemporary hetero auteur.)
Skeptics may continue to see the zanier surfaces of My Winnipeg as a sort of whimsy with an attitude, given its juxtapositions of rear projection and gauzy black and white with unhinged sight gags, nudity, and Canadian pop songs like “Moody Manitoba Morning.” But it has the feel of a personal accommodation, possibly one the real-life Guy Maddin has already made, with ambivalence and the way the march of time can seem married to the ascendancy of mediocrity. (But given that this Winnipeg’s largest bridge is a bargain purchase relocated from the Nile, and its prime tobogganing hill a landfill that will occasionally impale children on disgorged junk, second-ratedness appears to be an established seam of the social fabric.) A city that’s razed its temple of hockey, in which Maddin posits a team of ancient ex-athletes skating as demolition plaster falls around them, and mammoth retail palace in favor of a ticky-tacky arena and a mall has still failed to destroy the collective memory of its residents. Whatever pull Winnipeg still exerts over its moviemaking son is more likely in the fossil-like snow prints his feet leave on the front walk for months, or the recollection of the simple domestic cocoon of his clan’s white block house.