As expected, The Forbidden Room has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies. Comments on this post are closed; please make all comments on the official Certified Weird entry.
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
FEATURING: Louis Negin, Clara Furey, Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles, Caroline Dhavernas, Paul Ahmarani, Noel Burton, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Maria de Medeiros
PLOT: It opens (and ends) with a hygiene lecture about the importance of baths, and in between flows back and forth between tales about men trapped in a submarine, an apprentice lumberjack seeking to free a woman captured by bandits, a bone surgeon who falls in love with a motorcycle crash victim, and many more.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We have an unofficial rule that no movie is placed on the List until after it is released on home video. But for that restriction…
COMMENTS: Wrapped in a robe (and draped in washed-out Super-8 color), Marv (Guy Maddin stalwart Louis Negin) confidently explains how to take a bath for bathing novices (“carefully insert your big toe into the waters. This will tell you if it’s too hot or too cold.”) The camera tracks down the bathtub drain until it finds a submarine, stuck at the bottom of the sea, with only 48 hours of air remaining and a captain who has left orders not to be disturbed. The sailors scarf down flapjacks, because the air packets trapped inside the pastries provide them with extra oxygen. Suddenly, a woodsman walks through a hatch, with no memory of how he got there. He explains, in flashback, that he is an apprentice lumberjack (a “saplingjack”) from Holstein-Schleswig on a quest to rescue the beauteous Margot from a group of bandits called the Red Wolves. After earning the brigands’ trust through a series of trials including finger-snapping and offal-piling, the saplingjack earns their trust provisionally and is allowed to sleep in their cave. There, Margot, now the leader of the Red Wolves, dreams that she is an amnesiac who wanders into a Casablanca-style cafe…
And that’s just in the first twenty minutes of this two hour feature which continually segues, Phantom of Liberty style, from one retro-absurdist vignette to another. Sometimes the next story is a re-enactment of a newspaper headline glimpsed by a character in the previous tale, sometimes it is a dream of mustache hairs. Along the way we get “The Final Derriere,” the lament of a man “plagued by bottoms,” sung by a scrambled-faced crooner; a bone surgeon erotically assaulted by curvy women dressed as skeletons, and “forced to wear a leotard!”; and a man who bids on a bust of the two-faced god Janus against his own double. This epic phantasmagoria is mostly presented in glorious two-strip Technicolor, but the film stocks vary and jump around (some segments are black and white). Periodically, a recurring morphing effect causes the entire screen to waver dramatically. Although this is a sound film, sometimes the movie turns silent and dialogue is conveyed by Maddin’s famously melodramatic intertitles; the characters soon forget they are in a silent film and start to speak again. Intriguingly, the stories backtrack, and then lurch forward in new directions, and by the end the entire Chinese puzzle box telescopes in reverse, backtracking through the labyrinth of stories and ending up where it began, with a wrinkled swinger in a bathrobe extolling the virtues of a good scrubbing.
The Forbidden Room is a tour-de-force summation of Maddin’s evolution-through-regression style. Disunity and fragmentation are the themes here (the opening epigraph from John reads “gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost”). The lack of a strong central theme may be a slight weakness here that holds Room back from being one of Maddin’s top-rank masterpieces (compare the single-minded autobiographical obsessiveness of My Winnipeg or the Freudian incest hysteria of Careful). Yet, the film overwhelms us with shameless excessiveness, hidden treasures, visual marvels, and Maddin’s subconscious wit. It is the master’s most unabashedly surreal picture in some time (which says quite a lot), occupying a place in his oeuvre similar to INLAND EMPIRE‘s position in David Lynch‘s canon (although hopefully it will not be Maddin’s final word on the subject).
Just as the seminal Maddin feature Cowards Bend the Knee arose out of a “peephole” art installation, The Forbidden Room arose out of the “Seances” project (which in turn arose, ghostlike, from the ashes of an abandoned short film project called “Hauntings”). The premise of “Seances” is that Maddin reimagines lost films from the silent and early talkie era, which are today known only by their titles. The opening sequence of The Forbidden Room, for example, appears to be based on a lost hygiene film called “How to Take a Bath.”
One of The Forbidden Room‘s deepest mysteries is the identity of co-director Evan Johnson. Who is he? The movie has Maddin’s sensibilities written all over it, and if no co-director were named none would have been suspected. What did Johnson contribute? Why was Maddin so impressed with him to make him a protégé? And furthermore, who is the presumably-related Galen Johnson, who gets credits for music, a co-credit (with Evan) for visual effects, and titles? (The actual answer is prosaic: Evan Johnson was a former film student hired as a research assistant, whose contributions to the project became so significant that Maddin felt he deserved a co-director credit. Still, we like to think of Evan’s sudden elevation from Rug Doctor bottling plant worker to near-equal partner of the most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker of the day as the kind of plot twist that could only occur in Guy Maddin’s universe).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What narrative momentum there is has the choppy feel of unrelated serials crudely stitched together into a chaotic assemblage that operates, like all Mr. Maddin’s work, on hallucinatory dream logic. As a viewer you can supply whatever subtext comes to mind.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)