“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (quote originally intended to introduce Archangel)
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
FEATURING: Kyle McCulloch, Kathy Marykuca
PLOT: In 1919, one-legged Canadian airman Lt. John Boles finds his way to the Russian port of Archangel in the endless night of Arctic winter. There, he meets Veronkha, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Iris, his dead love. Veronkha has problems of her own, in the form of an amnesiac husband who wakes up every day believing this is the day they are to be wed, but Boles tires to woo her nevertheless as Archangel’s ragtag militia battles the Germans and the Bolsheviks without realizing that both World War I and the Russian Revolution are over.
- The city of Archangel was the port of entry for Allied soldiers during World War I; therefore, soldiers from America, Canada, and the European allies might very well have been found gathered there (although probably not East Indians and Congolese, as depicted in the film). Many Allied soldiers were sent to Russia, partially to help assist the Imperial (White) Russians against the Bolshevik Communist rebels (Reds).
- Some reports say that the version presented on the “Guy Maddin Collection” DVD is a different cut from the theatrical and original VHS version, with tinting and intertitles added. I haven’t been able to confirm whether differences exist.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: As his dying act, a lifelong coward strangles a bestial Bolshevik with a length of his own intestine (which is obviously a sausage link).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tale of an obsessive, grieving soldier who thinks he’s found the reincarnation of his lost love in a benighted Russian city where the citizens continue to fight a war that is over would be weird enough if told straight. Director Guy Maddin exaggerates the already dreamlike quality of this tale by clothing it in the archaic period dress of an early sound film, complete with intertitles describing the action, dubbed voices that are occasionally slightly out of sync, and casually disorienting jumps/glitches in the film. He pushes this inherently confusing story of terminally confused characters further into strange realms with deliberately surreal elements, such as women warriors going to the front dressed in elegant evening headwear, and even odder sights.
Short clip from Archangel (French subtitles not in original)
COMMENTS: The city of Archangel seems the perfect place to dream. Isolated from the world by geography, blanketed in the winter darkness of the Arctic circle, it’s a netherworld for lost souls. Nothing done inside the city’s radius matters outside: the town’s entire reason for being is to fight wars that are already decided. It’s the perfect stopover for one-legged Lieutenant John Boles, whose reason for living disappeared into a pit of darkness along with an urn of ashes falling from the deck of a steamer. Reality’s grip on this town is loose; here, it seems the impossible may become real. Here, it may be possible to forget.
This bleak town, with its onion spires, Orthodox icons, and snowy tundra blanketed in inky darkness, deserves to be depicted in black and white. It also should be a place of great silences, where every whisper is in danger of being blown under a snowdrift and buried forever. The setting is a perfect match for Guy Maddin’s melancholy style, which focuses on recreating the bleak and distressed look and feel of films of the 1920s as they make the transition from silents to sound pictures. Archangel is a successful, often poetic film, although a difficult one for viewers who require a straightforward plot.
As much as Maddin’s fondness for silent film styles matches Archangel‘s mood, however, his penchant for surrealism occasionally subtracts something from the dream. Played straight, but filmed in the style of an Eisenstein or a von Stroheim, the scenario of an obsessed man who believes he has found the reincarnation of his lost love in this absurd dream city could have carried the weight of a classical tragedy, while still maintaining more than enough subtle weirdness to push it over the edge. But Maddin must push the envelope and add irrational, confusing details to the dream. Sometimes, as is the case with the doctor’s tale of the outrageously Freudian origin of Philbin’s amnesia, or the assault of bunny rabbits in the trenches which turns out to have a logical if implausible cause, Maddin’s tricks work a charm. At other times, like the disastrous tangent involving an exploding cactus coupled with risible animation, or the distracting blue and orange tinting that suddenly appears two-thirds of the way through the movie and disappears just as quickly, his experiments fail and are nothing more than gratuitous. It’s almost as if Maddin uses surrealism here to periodically distance himself from the heavy emotional core of the film. Such inexplicable things happen in dreams from time to time, it’s true, but in this film they often interrupt the spell being cast. There’s an aura of parody here that undermines rather than lightens the sincere misery of the plot.
One place where Maddin allows himself to be unexpectedly, unabashedly romantic is in the climax of the subplot involving the cowardly father and the son who disdains him. It’s a surprisingly moving sequence, and it serves an important emotional purpose in providing one happy ending (even if it is post-mortem) for Archangel’s denizens, who are otherwise fated for sad ends.
Some commentators stress that every character in Archangel suffers at some point from a form of amnesia. While this is true of Philbin and Veronkha, the exact opposite is true of Lt. Boles: he suffers from the curse that he can’t forget Iris. The mustard gas of the Huns makes Philbin relapse into a happy amnesia, but the one-legged lieutenant gets no such relief when he’s gassed: he remembers his painful existence more keenly than ever, recalling “My name is John Boles. I’m in Archangel. Fighting a war. I’m trying to find the woman I love. Iris!”
Where the other characters are trapped by their forgetfulness, Boles is trapped by his persistent memory, which is so powerful and painful that it causes him to willfully misperceive reality: to believe that Veronkha is his dead beloved, and to go so far as to try, like a less ethical version of Vertigo‘s Scottie Ferguson, to trick her into entering his fantasy world. Philbin and Veronkha, like the Archangel militia who fight wars without knowing they are over, are innocent in their ignorance, but Boles is culpable in his knowledge. Philbin may cheat on his Veronkha, but it’s an innocent betrayal: it’s only because he forgets his wife’s very existence, so every woman he sees is like the first he has ever seen. When Boles beats Philbin for flirting with Veronkha, he knows that his American rival is faultless; even if Veronkha doesn’t love her husband, he can’t be blamed for his illness that makes him believe its their wedding day. The audience forgives Boles because we too feel the depths of his grief, but throughout the film Boles, the hero, is the one who consistently does wrong—motivated by his painful memory.
Boles swoons and seems to fall into a dream the first time he sees Veronkha, the image of his beloved. In his dream, he can temporarily forget Iris is dead (although the urn of her ashes pops up unexpectedly at times, as if bubbling up from Boles’ own subconscious). To forget her death, though, he must convince Veronkha to play along with the fantasy family he creates; but she is destined to reconcile with her true husband, reliving the flight to her wedding bed over and over, trying over and over to get that night right. In the end, Boles must awake from his dream and abandon his impossible hope of reconciling with the dead. The final shot—significantly, the only daytime scene in the film—is heartbreaking; Boles at home, at a hero’s parade, mobbed by grateful patriotic beauties, his face blank and haunted, remembering only that he has lost Iris–twice.
Boles craves the blissful forgetfulness enjoyed by Philbin, where every new day is again the happiest day of his life. But when Archangel dips its lieutenant briefly in the river Lethe, it holds him firmly by the heel, only to yank him out at the last reel. Dreams are short; the only eternal forgetfulness is death.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The ludicrous story of ‘Archangel’… matters much less than the archaic style in which it is told. From its flickering, inky cinematography to its wavering late 1920’s-style sound track, to Veronkha’s kohl-eyed vampish look, the movie is an expert parody of a period movie style.” –Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“The characters move in a surreal, fogbound atmosphere of hazy unease; this is a place where fuzzy bunnies rain down into the Russian trenches while the German invaders feast on the throats of their slaughtered enemies. At once perplexing and joyous, Maddin has crafted a film that, for all the confusion inherent in the tale, unfolds on its own unique (and rather tedious) terms. Love it or hate it, this is one film that just doesn’t give a damn what you think.” –Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
“Maddin pokes fun at virtually every period propaganda, romantic, and combat cliché, capturing the iconography of that distant age with tireless precision via flash cards, ponderous voice-overs, deliberately unsynched dialogue, and hyperbolic imagery… Anyone looking for an affectionate skewering of the brand of antique-flicks they sat through in college film courses or at retro theaters should deem Archangel a subversive treat.” –Joe Kane, The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope
IMDB LINK: Archangel (1990)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
DVD INFO: Archangel is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection” (buy), along with the feature film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and the award-winning short The Heart of the World. The DVD also includes a short clip from the documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight and audio commentaries with the director (and others) on the two features.