PLOT: A lumberjack inexplicably appears inside a doomed submarine. While searching for their captain one of the crew shares the wayward lumberjack’s story and several more strange tales. Before and after the main narrative (such as it is), a man lectures on how to take a bath.
While researching Hollywood’s lost films, Guy Maddin learned that approximately 80% of silent films made have been lost; many are preserved in title only. Maddin became obsessed with the idea that there were all these films he would never be able to see. This obsession turned into an ongoing four year long project producing re-imagined versions of these forgotten treasures. It began as an installation where Maddin and Johnson shot a movie a day in public. Some of what was shot became The Forbidden Room; the rest will become an interactive project that the NFB (National Film Board) will host called “Seances.”
The title The Forbidden Room is itself taken from a lost Lon Chaney film from 1914.
Co-director Evan Johnson was a former student of Maddin’s who was originally hired simply to do research, but his contributions to the project became so significant that Maddin felt he deserved a co-director credit.
The opening and closing segments are based on the title of a lost film called “How to Take a Bath,” made by none other than Maniac‘s Dwain Esper.
The Forbidden Room won 366 Weird Movies’ readers poll for Weirdest Movie and Weirdest Scene of 2015.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: An indelible image in The Forbidden Room? The entire film is a collage of indelible images. Candidates include lumberjack suddenly appearing in a submarine, a sauntering lobotomized Udo Kier ogling ladies’ derrieres, insurance-defrauding female skeletons in poisonous leotards.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Forbidden Room is a collection of strange stories about bizarre characters weaved through a central plot involving a lumberjack attempting to rescue a kidnapped woman. The catalyst for this storytelling begins when the lumberjack suddenly appears on a submarine. Add a healthy dose of surreal, humorous imagery and some creative editing and shake well for a truly one-of-a-kind cocktail of weirdness.
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).
PLOT: A master musician loses the will to live after his prized violin is destroyed, and retires to his deathbed where his story is told through flashbacks mingled with fantasy sequences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a movie made up mostly of deathbed hallucinations that includes visits with Socrates, the Angel of Death, and a giant version of Sophia Loren; that’s enough to get it on the weird map. The fact that it’s visually spectacular and delightfully artificial hurts not a bit.
COMMENTS: In the 1950s all doomed, elegant heroes and heroines in the movies smoked, and smoke is a key visual element of Chicken with Plums. Early in the film, master violinist Nasser-Ali reluctantly smokes opium at the insistence of an antiques dealer; later, his dead mother’s soul is so thick that it’s visible as a cloud of smoke hovering over her grave. Stylistically, the film is itself like smoke, wispy and constantly changing. Dream sequences, flashbacks and flash-forwards explore an expansive visual palette, ranging from figures isolated in Expressionist shadows to popup storybook animations. Everything is deliberately stagebound so that even in the “realistic” scenes, the skies are a hand-painted pink and lavender. The most jarring experiment is a moment where the movie suddenly turns into an American-style sitcom, complete with a laugh track; if you can handle that side trip, you’ll be in for the whole ride. Death-seeking Nasser-Ali, played with frowny melancholia by mustachioed Mathieu Amalric, is a selfish character, to be sure, but the more we learn about his backstory the more forgiving we become. We’re never able to absolve him entirely of his decision to abandon life (and his wife and children), but we do feel the weight he bears through his life, and can appreciate his decision as tragedy. Our hearts break the moment his does. Nasser-Ali’s apparently shrewish wife Faringuisse (de Medeiros) stars in an equally tragic subplot, and one of their two children is given an epilogue that generates further despair. It’s all very romantic, but the old, sentimental “love is worth dying for” theme plays believably only in the unreal movie past the film evokes: the formal world of yesteryear where gentlemen always wear ties, ladies wear hats, and everyone blows smoke directly at the camera. Chicken with Plums‘ 1930s-1950s time frame conjures up a comforting antique nostalgia, and the Iranian setting adds exotic spice. Delightfully strange moments include when the hallucinating musician is smothered in giant cleavage, a visitation from a ragged gravesite prophet, and the chilling appearance of the Angel of Death, who drops by not to claim Nasser-Ali’s soul but just to chat a bit and to tell a morbidly ironic story-within-the-story. Like a solo adagio played on an antique instrument, Nasser-Ali’s tale is beautiful and sad. Unabashedly artificial, unashamed to moon over lost loves, and a little aware of the absurdity of its own romanticism, Chicken with Plums hits a unique note: despondent whimsy.
Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s first film collaboration was the award-winning animated Persepolis (2007), adapted by Satrapi from her own autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken with Plums is also from a Satrapi comic, and supposedly tells the (obviously embellished) story of a relative of hers. On an unrelated note, this movie reunites Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini, last seen together in the Certified Weird The Saddest Music in the World.
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“I’m actually trying for something a little bit different this time. I’ve always used, as a safety net, dreamlike delirium, confusion among the characters. On this I don’t really have a safety net. It feels good to remove the safety net… I really need to tell a story the way my idols had to tell a story. Still, it will, perhaps, I hope, strike people as ‘different’ than most of the other pictures made today.”–Guy Maddin on The Saddest Music in the World
PLOT: During the Great Depression Lady Port-Huntley, a legless beer baroness from Winnipeg, organizes a contest to discover which nation produces the saddest music in the world, offering a $25,000 prize. Musicians from across the globe descend upon the city, including three members of a Canadian family: a father (representing Canada) and two brothers (one a Broadway producer representing America, the other an expatriate cello virtuoso playing for the honor of Serbia). It turns out that the family has a twisted history with each other, and with the contest organizer, involving amnesia, medical malpractice, broken hearts, betrayals, and beer.
The Saddest Music in the World was based on a screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go), but was extensively rewritten by Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles (for one thing, the setting was moved from 1980s London to Canada in the Great Depression).
With a budget of 3.5 million Canadian dollars, this was the largest budget Maddin had ever worked with. Unfortunately, the film made back less than $1 million at the box office.
The Saddest Music in the World was the second Maddin feature released in a busy and amazing 2003; Cowards Bend the Knee (also Certified Weird) debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, while the relatively more mainstream Music was first shown in August at the Venice Film Festival.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isabella Rossellini’s bubbly new gams, which she proudly displays while dressed as Lady Liberty as dancing girls dressed as Eskimos lie on their backs kicking their heels in the air, all set to the heartbreaking strains of the melancholy ballad “California, Here We Come!”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Guy Maddin’s promiscuous mix of retro-film techniques, including iris lenses and a primitive two-strip Technicolor process, that drops us into an artificial, alternate movie world that never really existed. These visuals illustrate a preposterous plot packed with the delightfully absurd coincidences that were the coin of early melodrama—everyone of importance in the movie has a dark, hidden history with everyone else—all interrupted by screwball one-liners and absurd Busby Berkeley-style production numbers. It’s as if random selection of melodramas and musicals made between 1915 and 1935 had been carelessly stacked on top of each other, and over the years the degenerating nitrate gradually melted into a single filmstrip.
Original trailer for The Saddest Music in the World