Director: Guy Maddin
Screenplay: Guy Maddin and George Toles
Cast: Jason Patric (as Ulysses Pick); Isabella Rossellini (as Hyacinth); Udo Kier (as Dr. Lemke); Louis Negin (as Calypso / Camille); Brooke Palsson (as Denny); Kevin McDonald (as Ogilbe)
Synopsis: A group of gangsters lock themselves from pursuing police in the family home of their leader Ulysses Pick (Patric). Having had his gang kidnap a young man (David Wontner) and having brought with him a young woman Denny (Palsson), who is reeling from having drowned and can only hear his thoughts, Ulysses' intention is to reunite with his estranged wife Hyacinth (Rossellini), setting off with the two captives and his gang's assistance around the various rooms of the giant home to find her. Acquiring the objects of his mostly deceased children, Ulysses' home is haunted by ghosts, a secret passage guarded by a helmeted Cyclops, and his wife's dead father Calypso (Negin) chained naked to her bed post and warning Hyacinth of her husband's return. Memories start to return to Ulysses but so does the animosity of part of his gang, from Big Ed (Daniel Enright), growing to the point a bicycle powered electric chair is built in the living room waiting for him.
Out of his filmography, Keyhole manages to be one of Guy Maddin's more elusive films which is a pretty exceptional feat amongst the likes of Careful (1992), his two-strip colour gothic mountain film, and the ice hockey obsessed psychodrama Cowards Bend The Knees (2003), just two of many films within a career where most if not all of the films if placed in another director's filmography would stand out as being strange and fascinating. It was also his transition to digital cameras after years of using celluloid, even his archaic style influenced by silent cinema and the ectoplasmic residue of repertory cinema double bills effected by technological changes in filmmaking. He has however remained proudly weird and unconventional regardless of this fact, building from two shorts Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair (2009) with star Isabella Rossellini and Glorious (2008) and using their sketched out ideas to build Keyhole, the hybrid of gangster films and haunted house movies.
The result, strangely, passes the Quay brothers, who have their own idiosyncratic style, waving to them and passing notes to each other, the film having a taste of their work in how it's the claustrophobic interior world of the Ulysses home shot in monochrome, where each shelf and drawer is a cabinet of curiosities with each object evoking Ulysses' lost memories. It's unmistakably Maddin's work nonetheless, balanced between the poetic and the deliberately crass and strange, but it has its own unique, disquieting personality next to his previous works, where ghosts of Ulysses' sons and others such as a maid wander around the rooms, occasionally screaming, creating an omninous mood. Maddin's eccentricities appear, such as one of the gang members making the ill-advised attempt to hump one of the ghosts, but its far and away more vague and moody than his more elaborate worlds of other films. Geography for the home is vague baring an outdoor garden built in the centre of the building, a pond there where the dead are pushed into, a deliberate vagueness to the story even compared to the other Maddin films where the supernatural is evoked, the sense that one is in the afterlife feeling apparent.
The change to digital is jarring at first after many of his films being in celluloid; especially as at the time of writing this only review only The Forbidden Room (2015) has followed up this film, Maddin's worlds perfectly suited the texture of film celluloid and the loss of it is something you have to adapt to if you've seen his previous work. Thankfully he decided to make this his most textural work, cramped corridors and shots of Ulysses' eye gazing at the viewer through keyholes bringing a more internal world appropriate for a journey of a man, whose separated from his wife and had most of his children killed, searching for the harmonious family life he feels once existed.
There is a brief flash of colour, an uniquely toned hue similar to a Kenneth Anger short film from the forties called Puce Moments (1949), interconnected to his only daughter Lota (Tattiawna Jones), whose bared body draped in jewellery behind a gauze curtain haunts the mother more as her skull had been planted in the flower pot near her bed. It's all too brief to drastically change the film's tone into an entire Kodachrome soaked passage within the narrative but certainly in a film which is fragmented by various memories which clog up the house's exteriors, this brief flash of literal colour adds a distinction for the character of Ulysses' daughter and her narrative through line.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
The tone of the film as a result of its plot being about a man searching for his memories is that of images layering on-top of each other, in cases literally as images are back projected behind actors as they act out being effected by ghostly forms from afar, usually a naked old man whipping them in the kinkiest haunted house imagery you could imagine. Maddin is still appropriately eccentric - name another film where a prized taxidermy wolverine with a cigar in its mouth called Crispy is important for the protagonist to lug around - but it feels more deliberately sombre even with its humour than the other films of his I've seen, appropriately for a film about a haunted house having the right haunted vibe.
This is particularly the case with Louis Negin as Calypso being such a towering influence on the film's tone, our ghostly and sarcastic narrator but also brazeningly showing his bared aged body onscreen with only giant chains as a costume, his graceful inflections adding to the mysterious nature of the material where apparitions of old memories - conflicts between Ulysses and Hyacinth to one of his sons appearing in the closest masturbating catatonically - flash briefly. Ulysses' accomplishes most of the trip is a male who's revealed to be his only surviving son Manners, the last to be seen in the film as a bystander to the haunted and isolated rooms, and a woman who slowly sinks into feeling water in her lungs unless Ulysses keeps forcing her to stay alert, a waif played with a distance by actress Brooke Palsson that isn't aloof but feels like she's been pulled out of the afterlife against her will. The gangsters feel like the more eccentric inclusion fitting Maddin's genre blending tendencies, most gladly helping their boss by way of interior decoration whilst others cavort with their female molls or desire to fry Ulysses for good. It's someone like Udo Kier, suddenly appearing than suddenly leaving never to be seen again, who's the most normal individual, playing a doctor whose subplot about his son dying that day, trying to clear a wasp's nest from the garage, has little effect on the narrative but feels appropriate for the film's ghostly tone.
This is also Maddin's most sexually explicit and purposely provocative film giving it the distinction of being the only 18 certificate film in Guy Maddin's career from those released in the UK. Sex and kink has appeared in his films before - Coward Bends The Knees gets away with fisting as if also whimsical, and Sissy Boy Slap Party (1995) crams so many polished male buttocks in its short film length to keep one energised even if you're heterosexual - but this goes further with full frontal male and female nudity, female undergarments with crude drawings etched on the silk proudly worn by Ulysses' cheating moll, who only speaks in un-subtitled French for additional eerie effect, and by way of super imposition a man fellating a fake cock sticking out of a wall, toned down from the inspirational short Glorious which had multiple fake members of a gangster's many sons sticking out a wall. Maddin's work has always had a subconscious nature to it - oedipal nightmares next to Technicolor fantasies - so it's natural that sex comes into play; as one of the most respected figures of Canadian cinema who's given art grants to make films like this as he grows older, he decided not to mellow but thankfully become more explicit whilst keeping a tongue firmly in his cheek.
Out of his work in general, something like Cowards Bend The Knees is the most abstract of his films - the one-two punch of purposely blending autobiography into fictional stories which gladly paint himself as a pathetic geek, with no hesitation in mocking himself or even portraying Guy Maddin as a terrible human being, and the original format of peep hole cameras which played chaptered segments when it was first as an art gallery exhibit make it a more powerfully strange creation. But a lot of Keyhole by itself is immensely effecting and in a daze in its tone, giving it a considerable dreamlike style even next of most of his filmography. While he does create worlds that could only exist in cinema or in a cineaste's pineal gland, this is one film which eventually becomes more mysterious as it goes along and presents its most vague content by its ending, which even next to his other movies is utterly open to interpretation, the only person left being Manners stuck either between the past and the present, or between reality and dreams which is entirely up to the viewer to decide.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Psychotronic/Surrealist
Abstract Traits: Elderly Male Full Frontal Nudity; Locations with No Clear Geography; Dreamlike Mood; Textural Content and Fetishisation of Objects; Melding of Dissonant Film Genres; Sexual Kink; Farcical Jokes; References to Classic Mythology; Suddenly Switches to Colour; Taxidermy Animals
One of Guy Maddin's more obscure works and a divisive entry in his career for some, it's yet a testament to his career that rather than sit on his laurels and churn work out that is repetitive he has made films which all have their own distinct personalities to them even if they link in terms of style and trademarks. While his other monochrome works like Archangel (1990) have usually whimsical tones, Keyhole is more atmospheric in a quiet, elusive way, a mood for its night setting of shadowed rooms. The illogical moments, such as Ulysses dropping his gang's guns into the incinerator in the basement without removing the bullets from them, are swallowed up in a film that feels like a mix of cinema and the Greek tale of Ulysses concocted in a dream state, his most claustrophobic and internal works whose logic is its own like his other movies, where the dead are picked out of the living after a shootout by making them stand up and rested face first against a wall. Especially in a career that's as idiosyncratic as his, it'd be easy for films like Keyhole or his more divisive work Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) to be ignored but even films like these are very unpredictable, odd gems with their own internal logics.