DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is
hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.
COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. It’s stranger than it sounds, and although elements of a perverse epic are slowly revealed, Ulysess’ backstory raises more questions than answers and results in a tale that’s confusing even by Maddin standards. The story features Guy’s typically twisted family relations (an adopted son who takes the place of the child he murdered, a naked father chained to his daughter’s bed) and again explores his obsession with amnesiacs (Ulysses has forgotten or repressed his family history and uses the journey through his haunted house to exorcise the nagging guilt that is haunting him). The director’s virtuoso, lightning-montage editing also appears, but it’s used less purposefully than in The Heart of the World or Cowards Bend the Knee; it’s become more of a stylistic residue or authorial signature. It also wouldn’t be a Maddin movie without at least one color scene intruding on the black and white compositions; here, there are a couple of moments when a jeweled curtain falls across the screen, and then is drawn back to reveal a new scene. Earlier Maddin monochromes set in the filmic worlds of the 1920s included hand-tinted scenes to evoke the artificiality of early movies; here, the drapes are a beautiful visual device but serve neither as a strong symbol or a formal comment. Perhaps Keyhole‘s biggest drawback is its casting. Handsome and stoic, Jason Patric looks the part of a square-jawed criminal, but his delivery is stilted and he is distant throughout the film: the underplaying is somewhat fitting due to his character’s symbolic emotional distance, but we never sense of the roguish charisma a gang leader is supposed to have. Kevin McDonald appears as an underling who gets caught up in a liaison with one of the house’s many ghosts, but he mugs his way through his distracting bit with a comically shocked expression that he should have left in the “Kids in the Hall” skit he borrowed it from. And although Isabella Rossellini is an icon and was perfectly cast as a legless beer baroness in Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, she brings little to the role of the gangster’s wife Hyacinth. Despite the makeup, hair dye and soft lighting, the radiant beauty is beginning to show her age. She looks more like Patric’s mother than his wife, and more like Louis Negin’s wife than his daughter. Speaking of Negin, the long-time character actor is actually the standout here as the Homeric narrator/ghost dad chained to his daughter’s bed. His craggy countenance earned him small roles in Maddin’s previous films, but here you see a lot more of him (and I mean a lot more: grandpa Louis spends almost the entire movie fearlessly and full-frontally nude). If the main storyline isn’t odd enough for you, there’s plenty of side strangeness, from a Yahtzee playing ghost to a bicycle-powered electric chair to a phallic Cyclops guardian. Though filled with Maddin’s usual humor, homage and surrealism, Keyhole feels less cohesive and elegant than his previous features. The best Maddin movies have strong emotional and stylistic hooks, while Keyhole feels built out of stray ideas he couldn’t fit into other movies. Still, average Guy Maddin blows away Michael Bay in peak form; if you’re going to repeat yourself, it helps to have a vision that’s worth repeating.
The Monterey Video DVD does not contain a commentary track: hopefully a future release will, since Maddin and screenwriting partner George Toles have always been eager to share their thoughts on past films. The release does contain a wonderful bonus short called “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” an abstract experimental sketchbook of ideas and images for Keyhole, some of which made it into the film and some of which did not. In “Chair”, Rossellini has an orgasm from being strapped into an electric chair that’s powered by a tap-dancer!
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: