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: The adventures of a talking cat owned by an Algerian rabbi, who innocently blasphemes, wants to be bar mitzvahed, and tags along on a quest to find the black Jews of Africa.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eccentrically conceived, The Rabbi’s Cat is an oddity of animated Judaica, but it’s not quite special enough to crack the List.
COMMENTS: Almost as strange as an Old Testament story, The Rabbi’s Cat begins in earnest when the titular feline swallows a rival pet—a parrot—and thereby gains the power of speech. The cat’s owners, a rabbi and his daughter, are surprised by this unusual development, but not quite as shocked as one might expect; the rabbi is more upset by the fact that the cat’s very first words are a lie (“I didn’t eat the parrot”) then he is by the fact that the conversation itself violates God’s laws of nature. That odd tone persists throughout this episodic film, which never finds a surefooted approach to its bizarre conceits but nonetheless remains witty and fascinating most of the time. The cat is conceived outside of human Jewish traditions, so he finds Bible stories ridiculous (“even a kitten wouldn’t fall for that!,” he complains about Genesis’ creation narrative), and when he blasphemes it seems innocent. But he also desires to be a Jew like his master and beloved mistress, and becomes obsessed with being bar mitzvahed, despite the fact that he shows no allegiance (and in fact a good bit of skeptical hostility) towards the teachings of the Talmud. The story is set in the 1930s in an Algeria populated by uneasily coexisting Jews, Arab Muslims and French Christians, but the multi-ethnic paradise of Algiers is eroding: antisemitism is on the rise, and Nazism lurks around the corner. Perhaps the turmoil of this pre-WWII world explains why the story is so jumbled up; or, perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the film is adapted from a five-volume graphic novel series, and strains to fit in too many incidents, characters and storylines into its running time. In the course of the tale, the cat gains the power of speech, then loses it after uttering a forbidden name of God (although for unknown reasons he can still speak to other animals and to Russians); just as arbitrarily, he starts talking again after being treated for a scorpion sting. A cousin with a pet lion, a Russian Jew smuggled in a crate of books, a bloody duel between an alcoholic Tsarist and a scimitar-wielding Bedouin, and the cat’s semi-erotic obsession with his master’s curvy daughter also jostle for our attention. The animation style wanders almost as much as the narrative. Although most of the film is drawn in a style only a little more elaborate than Hergé’s “Tintin” scribblings, there’s a surrealistic dream sequence, done in an even simpler and more childlike style, in which the rabbi literally cries an ocean of tears then lounges in his own salty discharge (smoking a waterproof hookah and nibbling on passing fish). And for unexplained reasons, when the cat and his companions actually discover the ancient hidden city of the Ethiopian Jews, the style changes again, so that the characters now appear as bizarre Hanna-Barbera caricatures of themselves, complete with huge round eyes. Mildly surrealistic touches like this, along with the script’s disinterest into sticking to any one plot or style for very long, make this a weirder (and richer) experience than it had to be.
Sfar wrote five volumes of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics between 2002 and 2006. In 2009 he paused his cartooning career and turned to film directing with the fantastical biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which incorporated a puppet to represent musician Serge Gainsbourg’s libido.
FEATURING: Louise Bourgoin, Nicolas Giraud, Jacky Nercessian, Gilles Lellouche, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mathieu Amalric
PLOT: In 1911, novelist and adventuress Adele Blanc-Sec seeks an ancient Egyptian cure to bring her twin sister out of a coma; her plans are interrupted when she must deal with a pterodactyl who is terrorizing Paris.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s more Spielberg-on-the-Seine than a weird movie per se.
COMMENTS: Adèle Blanc-Sec will probably remind you of those fantasy/adventure hybrids from the mid-1980s, movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Young Sherlock Holmes that mixed swashbuckling with the supernatural in an attempt to cash in on the cachet of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you imagine Audrey Tautou’s Amelie Poulain cast in the role of Indiana Jones, you wouldn’t be too far off the style here. Assaying the title character from a popular series of French graphic novels, newcomer Louise Bourgoin (previously a weather girl) stars as a proto-feminist novelist/adventurer at the dawn of the 20th century, the era just before the myths and legends of the ancient past were scoured away by the mustard gas blast of World War I. Interestingly, although all of her foils are male, no one in the French patriarchy comments on Blanc-Sec’s gender. She’s so confident and forceful in her actions—always seizing the initiative and never giving anyone else the opportunity to object—that we really believe her sex is not an issue. Adele bumbles around like an absent-minded professor, blind to everything that is alien to her goal of resurrecting her sister from her coma, including the clumsy advances of a young scientist who’s smitten by her. Yet, she’s also incredibly composed under pressure, not even breaking a sweat when she’s captured by an oily nemesis in the middle of raiding a pharaoh’s tomb.
Bourgoin is excellent in the role, and what success the movie achieves is largely due to her performance. Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. The cinematography is great, the set design (from desert tombs to Adele’s apartment, cluttered with relics from her adventures) is fantastic, and director Luc Besson’s eye for composition is as imaginative as always. Unfortunately, when it comes to effects and makeup, Blanc-Sec is not up to contemporary standards, giving the movie a cheap, ersatz Hollywood sheen that detracts from the sense of wonder the movie is desperate to instill. The pterodactyl is fine in closeups, but when it’s animated in clumsy CGI, it looks about a decade or more behind current technology. The grotesque Halloween makeup is unnecessary; it’s purpose, it seems, is to transform the onscreen characters into the exact duplicates of the characters from the graphic novel. One character has ridiculous eyebrows, another has unnatural dark spots surrounding his eye sockets, and the nutty professor of parapsychology wears a liver-spotted latex mask that just looks wrong. The makeup all looks slightly uncanny rather than whimsically cartoonish, as intended. The comic plot tries very hard to entertain, with telepathic connections to dinosaurs, a Clouseau-esque investigator who accidentally talks into his shoe, and reanimated Egyptians who speak perfect French and are fond of pranks. In fact, if anything Adele Blanc Sec may try a little too hard to impress, coming off as desperate; but any movie that manages to fit both pterodactyls and mummies into its running time has something to recommend it.
France just doesn’t have the funds to compete with Hollywood when it comes to blockbuster international entertainment; even in its dubbed version, Adele Blanc-Sec barely played American theaters (although the film did well in the Far East, surprisingly, and managed to break even on its budget). The movie arrived unceremoniously on Region 1 DVD three years late, without fanfare, from specialty distributor Shout! Factory. In a small controversy, a brief and apparently inconsequential scene of Bourgoin bathing in the nude was not included in Shout!’s initial release (as it had been snipped from the U.S. theatrical print). Three weeks later, however, Shout! issued a “director’s cut” with the topless footage included, forcing early-bird cinephiles to double dip if they wanted to catch the double nips.
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.