If a film festival like Berlinale can be said to have—as one of its goals, at least—an overriding interest in getting a sense of cinema’s future, then perhaps it’s ironic that the first film I saw in this year’s edition (its 65th) is one that not only glances at cinema’s past, but explodes it, putting it through a stylistic wringer, slathering its lovingly replicated old-movie images with a barrage of visual and aural filters, giving them new life through sheer unflagging verve and devil-may-care chutzpah. One would expect no less from Guy Maddin, a filmmaker who’s made a whole career out of running recreations of classic-Hollywood styles through his own darkly whimsical avant-garde sensibility—but his latest opus, The Forbidden Room, manages to be a law unto itself even in light of his previous oeuvre.
On the level of narrative, The Forbidden Room—which Maddin co-directed with Evan Johnson, who had a heavy hand with the film’s lurid colors and extravagant visual effects—has a Russian-nested-doll feel, with storylines, characters, and motifs weaving in and out of each other while the narrative itself seems to dive into one rabbit hole after another. A mysterious outsider named Cesare (Roy Dupuis) finds his way into a submarine, and his appearance leads to an explanatory detour in which we see him venturing into the inner sanctum of a forest gang in search of his long-lost love, Margot (Clara Furey)—which then leads to another sequence which reveals the many byways of Margot’s own amnesiac past…and so on, and so forth.
To some extent, the all-over-the-place storytelling matters less than the sense of anarchy the plotting generates: that invigorating sensation of a film willing to go anywhere and everywhere, governed less by conventional logic and structures than by the intuitive turns of its creators’ minds. That anarchic feeling extends into the film’s look. Maddin, of course, has always taken near-fetishistic care to give his film the appearance of something unearthed from cinema’s origins, but the manipulations he’s applied to the many interwoven storylines in The Forbidden Room go beyond anything in relatively “restrained” previous fare like The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain! It’s Classic Hollywood on steroids, with faded colors made gaudy, fragile celluloid made dangerously visceral, and many other such print flaws made larger than life.
Whether this undigested mass of old-movie pastiche pumped up with a recklessly experimental zeal adds up to anything substantial is perhaps more debatable. At times, The Forbidden Room taps into one of the most elemental aspects of the cinema: its ability to evoke the kinds of inner human desires usually repressed by the strictures of “polite” society. Case in point: One particular narrative detour inspired by, of all things, the mustache of a recently deceased butler (Udo Kier), which, for his wife (Maria de Medeiros) and son (Vasco Bailly-Gentaud), becomes a kind of totem that she won’t let go, to the point that she makes her son wear a fake mustache and sleep in bed with her, among other such perverse grief-stricken demands. The incestuous nature of her appeals is implied rather than explored, but such implications remind one of the kind of edgy innuendo that was prevalent in many American films before the creation of the Hays Code.
It’s telling, though, that that particular narrative thread feels like the most immediately poignant one in a film that otherwise overwhelms more visually and technically than it does emotionally. Guy Maddin throws so much material into The Forbidden Room, and handles it all with so much surface exuberance, that it may take a while for one to realize how little of it resonates beyond admiration of the filmmakers’ own cleverness. A genuine sense of loss and regret coursed through Maddin’s underrated last feature, Keyhole, which led a viewer through even its most arcane cinematic references; one looks in vain for much of similar affect in The Forbidden Room. Nevertheless, even if Maddin’s latest fever dream of the movies forsakes emotional depth for sheer multitude, there’s still something to be said for a film as high on the many and varied possibilities of cinema as this one is.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.