The surface curiosities of Guy Maddin’s cinema are such that the analytical mind can boggle at the thought that his work may in fact be deeply personal, and this misdirection applies doubly to The Forbidden Room, a colossal symphony of cascading oddity that features such indelible curveballs as a pair of malevolent “Aswang bananas.” Alas, the longstanding trend of Maddin’s career has been a consistent piling of farfetched folklore and dreamlike designs around a cluster of familiar human truths (grief, infatuation, forgetting, remembering), so his new film’s utter indulgence in esoterica paradoxically leaves it most vulnerable to the beating heart of this great artist of self-therapy.
The Forbidden Room’s central gimmick—a collection of lost films from the recesses of moving-image history are re-made by Maddin and company and invited to converse with one another—is deceptively anthropological. What’s really happened is that this filmmaker, always fascinated less by bygone cinema in its actuality than by the interaction between old films and the complex mind of their viewer, has leveraged this experiment, at once a research project and a brainstorm, to chisel yet again into the depths of his own past.
The film’s unruly scene recreations play out largely as fictional dramas, with one purely comical exception: a how-to demonstration about taking baths. Significantly, the scenario, which features Louis Negin as a cleansing expert who looks like Hugh Hefner’s long-lost cousin, suggests ephemera from the 1960s or ’70s. Branching off from this crude instructional-video pastiche are mini-movies evoking a far earlier vintage. In fact, as Maddin, key creative collaborator Evan Johnson, and editor John Gurdebeke tunnel deeper into their film’s expanding and contracting shape, they also appear to work backward through the history of filmmaking technology, with mid-century Technicolor riffs flowing into early sound simulations flowing into silent passages.
On first viewing, The Forbidden Room’s structure is easily mistaken as anarchic; indeed, the uneven lengths of its many disparate episodes make it difficult, in the trenches of its surreal unfolding, to identify any overarching compass. But Maddin’s imagination far exceeds mere in-the-moment eccentricity. Aside from the bath-taking vignette, which bookends the film and acts as a sort of narrative reset button twice during its unwieldy sprawl, several scenes are returned to throughout, and always in the order of their original appearances.
One of these episodes, a Hawksian gathering of anxious shipmates inside a dangerously pressurized submarine that immediately follows the bath demonstration via a bubbly sound-image association, provides what little the film has of a lasting central conflict: escape without causing an oceanic explosion and before exhausting the supply of oxygen-rich flapjacks! The subsequent tale, which eventually offers something like comforting cause-and-effect linearity across The Forbidden Room’s 130 minutes, is triggered by the impossible arrival to the pressure chamber of a freshwater-soaked woodsman—a “sapling jack,” goes Maddin’s parlance—who brings along the story of his ongoing search for Margot, a forest dweller kidnapped by wolf-men.
Insofar as they arrive systematically according to Maddin’s organizing pattern and therefore get the most screen time, one might say Margot (Clara Furey), sapling jack Cesare (Roy Dupuis), and Negin’s non sequitur-spouting show host are the main characters. This description, though, belies not only the film’s indifference to maintaining a tidy diegesis, but also to its sheer variety of sharply drawn, unforgettable oddballs. As Maddin and Johnson dive into their self-perpetuating web of narratives, their means of transitioning from one mini-movie to the next become increasingly absurd; zooming in on a newspaper headline and following its path is one thing, imagining the dream of a slain man’s moustache another.
Along the way, precisely defined bit players and entire corresponding worlds of excessively outlined mythologies spray out as though from an unmanned hose. At the Oracle Bones Hospital, reminiscent of the questionably sanitary clinic saddled with treating the epidemic of Maddin’s feature debut, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, a lonesome surgeon named Deng (Paul Ahmarani) is hilariously described as having “never been more than one hundred paces from the bones.” Later, a forgetful collector (Mathieu Amalric) scurries to pass off his own one-of-a-kind decorative items as duplicates when forced to come up with a gift for his wife’s birthday on the spot. When she inevitably suspects something fishy, he performs a string of logic leaps that concludes with him assassinating his loyal butler.
Indeed, one of the principal joys of The Forbidden Room, too easily left unexplored when thinking about its labyrinthine structure, is admiring the utter lunacy of its storytelling idiosyncrasies—the way, for instance, every new character’s entrance is promptly trailed by a lovingly designed title card stating their name, the actor playing them, and often a succinctly worded personality trait. Also self-evident is Maddin and Johnson’s profoundly singular image texture, arrived at through unprecedented hours of After Effects experimentation for this retro stylist. An aggressive hybrid of high-definition digital and celluloid-based aesthetic effects, the look achieved here makes the surface of the film appear as though a boiling broth, its representational forms decaying regularly into magma-like abstractions. Editing rhythms, ranging from the more or less classical to the downright epileptic, start to lose meaning against such a volatile texture, which effectively livens the image so much that the film appears in constant, jittery motion even when its characters are in relative stasis.
All this visual and narrative franticness is peppered with traces of a core psychological hurt recognizable from Maddin’s body of work as well as his autobiography. One passage, set inside the reverie of a broken pelvis, sums it up: “I lost my childhood,” says a skittish woman on a train filled with mental patients, to which a psychiatrist responds, “You were robbed of it.” The exchange occurs moments after the doctor warns her that “nothing is ever the past.” Ultimately, these intimations of trauma funnel toward a sequence that cements the warped personal imprint of the project—an episode that, regardless of whatever vanished cinematic artifact it revives, comes on most satisfyingly as a reimagining of the subject of Maddin’s very first film, the 26-minute The Dead Father, itself a direct grappling with the director’s loss of his dad at a young age.
The eerily moving scene finds the ghost of a deceased Udo Kier repeatedly interrupting his grieving wife (Maria de Medeiros) and son at suppertime, where they’ve set up a surrogate patriarch in the form of a vinyl recording labeled “Father” that emits uninflected one-word responses to the fragile widow’s small talk. “The Final Farewell,” reads an intertitle when Kier first crashes the scene, followed by “The Final, Final Farewell” when he shows up yet again—perhaps the most lucid working metaphor for this dense anthology film in which the return of the dead plays out on a structural, scene-to-scene level.
Another working metaphor? An elevator. In this analogy (an apt one given the prominent role this mechanism plays in the Amalric segment), Maddin’s dead father scene might be thought of as the ground level, the foundation of The Forbidden Room’s dozen-or-so-story high-rise, with the bathtub demonstration taking place on its top floor. A real prankster is riding this elevator, mashing buttons to ascend and descend at random intervals, and he doesn’t seem to want to get to the bottom. Perhaps because it’s too painful, perhaps because he’s just having too much fun exploring the other floors. In any case, for a film that features, in one climax within a climax within a climax in the film’s flammable final minutes, an image of a flying submarine dropping a bomb on an oversized human brain floating on the ocean’s surface, such analogies, in the end, are just desperately literal attempts to unpack the “boggling puzzlements” of this avant-garde behemoth. But they also, for what its worth, might help explain its capacity to leave a viewer in startling emotional disarray.