Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier
Watch The Forbidden Room online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Guy Maddin is a director serious cineastes get excited by: he is the quintessential filmmaker’s filmmaker, an experimental maverick who immerses himself in the medium. His new work, The Forbidden Room, is like watching an extended dream sequence, an hallucinatory kaleidescope of esoteric images that feel like a direct probe into the Canadian filmmaker’s subconscious. As such, it will doubtless be seen by his fans as his crowning glory. But for many, it will prove both baffling and infuriating.
The film has its genesis in his 2012 Seances project, an art installation at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, in which he recreated fragments of 100 lost films in 100 days, adding original material as he went. Filmed on digital, but processed to make it look like ancient grainy celluloid, here, he deconstructs in order to reconstruct.
In a recent interview, he admits that he has “always wondered how many films you could put within other films before you just broke people’s brains”, and with The Forbbiden Room, it appears he is testing just that. All the cinematic mythologies are represented, with images evoking everything from German expressionism to Nouvelle Vague via Hammer Horror and Hans Christian Anderson, building layer upon layer of memories in a non-linear collage of flickering images; a montage of storytelling through the ages.
And so, to the plot. An old man dressed in a half-opened satin dressing gown advises us on the correct procedures of taking a bath – a piece scripted by American poet John Ashbury and based on a lost 1937 film, How to Take a Bath. We cut to a group of submariners, as they look sadly upon a block explosive jelly that will detonate if the submarine surfaces. (Sample dialogue: “We are the jelly boys! Our place is here in the back protecting the jelly. What the stuff is, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s our job to take care of it.”)
At this stage, a mysterious man – a “woodsman” – appears, as though someone from a Grimm fairy tale has somehow stumbled onto the set of Das Boot. Now, the submarine periscope has gone up and we’re looking through it into cinema halls of the past. We follow our woodsman through a forest to the den of a pack of human wolves, who have kidnapped his amnesiac love, Margot. We jump to the 1920s for a song composed by Sparks for the film, The Final Derrière.
Quotes from Milton and Keats flash up on silent-era title cards. A seemingly sentient volcano erupts. A flapper drives by on a motorcycle. Margot is to be sacrificed to the volcano. A motorcycle accident caused by a troop of ducklings on the road results in the motorcyclist in a hospital, lovingly bandaged from head to foot by a slightly creepy doctor, 47 bones broken. Her cast comes off; she falls in love with her doctor.
A woman finds herself sharing a train cabin with a psychiatrist, and “somewhere between Berlin and Bogota”, he analyses her, as his demented patient screams from a barred cage in the cargo carriage. The psychoanalysis turns to sex. The woman’s inner child appears, a small girl who witnesses her mother being straighjacketed. A fight between a mother and father segues into a civil war soldiered by children.
At one stage, a man transforms into a blackened banana.
Eventually – and be warned, this film has a two-hour running time – we cut back to the submarine, where our submariners are facing almost certain death. “I want to think before I die”, says one, as though this trip has all been a dying man’s hallucination (Maddin is a huge David Lynch fan).
But of course, all of that is not the point. The point is the cumulative effect of all the tiny the fragments of moving picture history Maddin has so painstakingly recreated. It is all here, everything from Bergman to Godard, Buster Keaton to Bette Davis, Victoriana to British seaside postcards. There are loving pastiches of the monsters of yore too – Frankenstein and Nosferatu via Alice in Wonderland and The Blob. And through it all, the title cards pop up (“Lug-Lug – Hideous Impulse Incarnate”; “To Margot! Or to death!”; “Wolfsong, Fatal Wolfsong!”; “Melting Melting Melting”) and nod to the schlocky films of the 50s.
“I’d have to describe it as a quilt of dreams,” says the director. “You want people to feel washed up, panting, on some far shore, after barely surviving a drowning in narrative.” If this was his motivation, The Forbidden Room is an unqualified success. Never one to kowtow to commerciality, the film’s length will alienate many, but watching The Forbidden Room is a thoroughly immersive experience, like sinking into a warm tub overflowing with pure liquid cinema.