“The pandemonium of everyone, everywhere suddenly declaring all at once ‘and I too was molested by my father, or my mother; I too have recovered memories which have basically obliterated my chances of any kind of comfortable adult sexuality’—it seemed at that moment almost unthinkable to slant a movie—even going back into the German romantic past when incest was almost a common theme—to slant it comically and yet still somehow catch the feverish horror of incest in the net… It was only when the idea of the Alpine world, where extreme caution was required for all behavior, where there was a kind of silencer on everyone’s libido and behavior, when that was factored in, then I could see the green light in Guy’s eyes. Once he had the world ‘careful’ it was there all at once.”–George Toles describing genesis of Careful in the documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
FEATURING: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Brent Neale
PLOT: Villagers of the Alpine town of Tolzbad believe that avalanches will bury them if they are not meticulously careful to keep their voices low and their movements measured. The film follows the adventures of a family of a widowed mother and her three sons: Johann, who is engaged to be married; Grigorss, who is training to be a butler; and Franz, a mute who never leaves his chair in the attic. Presaged by the appearance of the blind ghost of the father, the family’s repressed emotions eventually erupt into suicide, duels, and even the dreaded avalanche.
- This was Guy Maddin’s third film, and his first fully in color (Archangel featured a few tinted scenes). The chromatic process used in the film mimics the so-called “two-strip” Technicolor which was used before 1932.
- The setting of Careful was inspired by “mountain movies,” a 1920s subgenre popular in the German national cinema, although Maddin admits in the DVD commentary that he had not actually seen any mountain movies when he made the film.
- Long-time Maddin screenwriting collaborator George Toles appears in Careful as a corpse in drag.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: I am tempted by the vision of the mountain mineworkers—women stripped down to their underwear, wielding pickaxes while wearing candle-bearing diapers on their heads—but the film’s most significant image is Johann gazing manically at his mother sleeping under her goat’s-head headboard while spreading the limbs of his massive garden shears.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If movies themselves could dream, their dreams would look like Guy Maddin movies: sludgy jumbles of styles, moods, and melodramatic preoccupations, composed of fragmented images made up from bits of misplaced, distressed celluloid. Like Maddin’s other movies, Careful keeps us at two removes from reality: it displaces us once by its narrative dislogic, and then a second time by its archaic stylization. In Careful the technique is particularly appropriate, since the subject matter—repressed incestuous desire—demands to be buried under layers of mystery.
Original trailer for Careful
COMMENTS: Careful begins with what amounts to a pre-Code Public Service Announcement, as an elder of the high-altitude Alpine village of Tolzbad warns, in a calm, hypnotic voice over carefully plucked harp arpeggios: “Children! Heed the warnings of your parents! Peril awaits the uncautious wayfarer, and strews grief where laughter once played.” The dangers of living in a craggy burg are, apparently, legion. There is the obvious danger of falling off the mountain slope. The fear of avalanches is so great that all domestic animals have their vocal cords severed lest they unwittingly bring death from above down upon the town. The citizens make a virtue of caution, so necessary to their survival, and they have perfected it as a habit to guard against the remotest dangers, for the residents of Tolzbad have many sad tales of the tragedies that result from heedless behavior. A baby once lost an eye when his mother foolishly clasped him to her bosom without making double-sure her brooch pin was fully closed. That same child lost his other eye as an adult when he peered too close to a cuckoo clock just as it burst forth to announce the dawn of a new hour. The elders have a rich storehouse of tales of woe with which to educate the young, but no number of cautionary fables can protect from every possible threat, from the “wild uncontrolled sound of nature,” the avalanche-tempting cries of migrating geese and the folly of the undisciplined human heart. That is why the citizens must always be alert, must carve the instincts of discretion and reserve into their bodies and souls, must always be careful.
The warning prologue is delivered, appropriately enough, in a monochrome print tinted a cautionary traffic-cone orange. In his third feature, Guy Maddin works for the first time in color, and like a 1920s German filmmaker given unlimited access to a two-strip Technicolor machine, he seizes upon the possibilities afforded by this new visual dimension to invent new forms of Expressionist storytelling. The Tolzbadians practiced public blandness is belied by the movie’s flamboyant color schemes: their repressed desires bleed onto the screen. Careful‘s visual compositions look like turn of the century Swiss postcards from which most of the dye long ago faded away. Early Technicolor processes usually used a green filter and a red filter, which in combination covered most of the color spectrum and resulted in an image that projected vaguely realistic hues. Throughout Careful Maddin experiments with using, for example, a yellow filter and a pink one, creating chromatic combinations that are as off-key as the concept of the sexually repressed Alpine village itself is.
Early scenes, such as the Feast of St. Mathilde where the village youths serenade a crowd of swooning maidens with a concerto blown on their grotesquely oversized Alpine horns, are rendered in pleasing, if unnatural, pastoral shades of cornflower and periwinkle. These halcyon days glow as pure and blond as the Aryan hair of young Johann, who chastely woos a village maid by the name of Klara. Of course it is not always so; at moonrise in Tolzbad, the amber sun fades away and is replaced by a purple moon. A violet moonbeam casts a blotch on the face of Johann’s older brother Franz, a lame mute who sits covered in cobwebs in the family attic eternally staring out the window. Bathed in lavender revelation, Franz sees a vision of his blind dead father, who warns the shut-in that his brother now “dreams of your mother like a bridegroom; he is confused; his virginity has become a curse,” that his mother’s unfulfilled desire haunts the house, and that poor Johann has “breathed it in.” Such is the moonrise in Tolzbad. In the next scene the once harmonious color palette is completely broken; tormented by his forbidden desire, Johann confesses to Klara “purity sickens me” and wonders if “the sounds of angels singing hymns to our virginal love was in reality a choir from the deepest pits of Hell?” The lovers’ figures are indistinct and shadowy, veiled in a dense color fog that Maddin calls “sickly urine yellow.” From this point on, the chromatic schemes swing as wildly as the characters’ cascading emotions; Klara will go to labor in the purple and gold mines of Tolzbad, Johann’s brother Grigorss will graduate butler school and land a position in Count Knotkers hunter green castle, and we’ll visit the glacial blue heights of Mitterwald’s Tongue and the electric orange peaks of Mt. Uhlander.
The visual exuberance is a sharp contrast to the acting; as in Maddin’s previous Archangel, the characters deliver their outrageously melodramatic lines (“God has left this mountain to the devil. We have all joined his unholy dance”) as if they were half-asleep and speaking in a daze. Here, the narcotized underacting is appropriate to the theme of repression, but it doesn’t help us bond with the characters, and the hard-to-hit tone of buried passion the script requires exposes the amateurism of a few of the cast members. (Franz, whose complete immobility makes him the safest and therefore most exemplary citizen of Tolzbad, is also the film’s exemplary actor; he’s forced to perform like a silent movie star, and his face is free to express an unfettered alarm and bereavement that the others, bound to language, must suppress). The plot, while not awful, is one of Careful‘s few negatives. It lingers too long at the setup. It’s hard to identify with the characters. There’s no one who engages our sympathies, the story switches the main character on us a third of the way through, imposes an unconvincing romance on us in the third act, and the continues after the natural climax of the duel to follow what is essentially a subplot. These failings far from ruin the film, since Careful has more than enough amazing atmosphere, style and psychological queasiness to admire, but to me they do keep it from being one of Maddin’s top works. The extra features of a master work—the deep involvement in Lt. Boles’ amnesiac tragedy in Archangel, the manic energy of Cowards Bend the Knee, the professional exuberance of Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney’s performances in The Saddest Music in the World—are missing in Careful, leaving us with little more to enjoy besides Maddin’s extraordinary style and the cleverness of the incest conceit. These minor flaws make Careful more a film for those who are already in the Maddin cult than an entry point into the canon (I recommend newbies start with Saddest Music, which is Maddin’s most accessible movie while still remaining astoundingly strange to the average person).
Like all of Maddin’s movies, Careful is a tragicomedy, and one that succeeds only because the humor is so absurd and dreamlike that it tempers the tragedy without mocking it. Maddin peppers his tepid Freudian melodrama with moments of full-bore Surrealism. An egg drops a fully developed, moving bird when cracked into a frying pan. There’s a confession of incestuous rape delivered during a yawning fit. In Careful, when two characters have a duel, it involves a drawn out ritual of frantically unbuttoning overcoats, interrupted as the contestants blow on their hands to keep their digits from freezing in the Alpine chill, followed by a frantic round of unbuttoning of waistcoats. It’s funny, but it doesn’t diminish the dramatic stakes of the contest: two men are fighting for their lives, and younger combatant could kill his spiritual father. Dead birds fall out of the sky around the victor. He carefully arranges their jumbled corpses into orderly rows. Such are the psychological avalanches of Tolzbad, where it always pays to be careful.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the film remains one long ‘look what I can do, Ma,’ drawing attention to the director’s conceits just when the viewer should be focusing on, oh, say, some sort of coherent plot… Too strange for its own good.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: Careful at Zeitgeist Films – A synopsis, stills, quotes from positive reviews, and a detailed Guy Maddin biography
IMDB LINK: Careful (1992)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Technicolor history – For the technically inclined, here is a discussion of early film color technology that Maddin mimics in Careful
DVD INFO: Zeitgeist’s “Remastered and Repressed” DVD (buy) preserves Maddin’s uniquely bizarre color and sound schemes, faithfully reproducing each imperfection. There is a buried treasure of bonus material; a commentary with the director and under-appreciated writing partner George Toles is of primary interest. There’s also the utterly surreal five minute short film “Odilon Redon” (which can be watched here, though with a different soundtrack). The most impressive extra is the informative one hour documentary Waiting for Twilight, narrated by none other than Tom Waits, which covers Maddin’s early history and was filmed as the nervous auteur was fretting over the production of 1997’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
This title is also available, with all the same features, as part of the four-disc set “The Quintessential Guy Maddin” (buy): other movies featured are the aforementioned Ice Nymphs, the Certified Weird movies Archangel (1990) and Cowards Bend the Knee (2004), the 2003 vampire ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, and the magnificent Surrealist/Constructivist short “The Heart of the World.” “Quintessential” is the only box set available anywhere to date containing an incredible three Certified Weird movies. At the time this review was published the compilation was priced at only a few dollars more than the single disc, making it an almost irresistible bargain.
Careful is also available for online purchase or rental (rent).
(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who argued “Careful ‘out-weirds’ both [Archangel and Cowards Bend the Knee] easily. In fact, I would definitely put it in my top 10. Such dreamlike photography puts you in a trance.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)