Directors: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
Screenplay: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery and Kim Morgan
Cast: Roy Dupuis (as Cesare); Clara Furey (as Margot); Louis Negin (as Marv/Smithy/Mars/Organizer/Mr. Lanyon); Udo Kier (as Count Yugh/The Butler/The Dead Father/Guard /Pharmacist); Gregory Hlady (as Jarvis/Dr. Deane/A Husband); Mathieu Amalric (as Thadeusz M___/Ostler); Noel Burton (as Wolf/Pilot/The Captain)
Synopsis: Based on Guy Maddin's Séance project, live and filmed performance pieces where lost films are "conjured" like spirits in acted out séances, The Forbidden Room is a series of stories within stories within stories. From a monologue about taking a bath from actor Louis Negin, the bathwater leads to men trapped in a submarine at the bottom of the sea with explosive jelly and rapidly depleting oxygen trying to find their captain. A lumberjack inexplicably appears leading to dreams and reflections that lead to dreams and reflections of those in the first ones. Of the lumberjack trying to rescue a woman Margot (Furey) from thieves, of aswang vampire bananas, poison absorbing leotards, Mathieu Amalric as a man living in an elevator killing his butler to cover up using his possessions as his wife's birthday gift, Udo Kier's ghost giving his son his moustache so he can pretend to be him for his blind mother (Maria de Medeiros), Kier also as a man obsessed with derrieres as sang by legendary duo Sparks and various forms of madness beyond that.
From the above synopsis, The Forbidden Room can claim to be out-there even for Guy Maddin, the Canadian hauntologist of films existing in alternative worlds like Careful (1992) to Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002). Co-director with Evan Johnson, this is amongst Maddin's most surreal films, an obsessive tribute to cinema that has sadly perished to the spectre of time or never got made. The film's from the Séance project, recreated here to, including works from legendary directors like Jean Vigo to Erich von Stroheim; for example, the tale of the son wearing his late father's moustache to comfort his mother is based on a lost Mikio Naruse work called The Strength of a Moustache (1931). Doing this Maddin and Johnson decided to take a page out of the film adaptation of The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) of relishing storytelling for its own sake, the stories segmenting into each other as character within them tell their own stories. The film in terms of ingesting it over two hours is a massive work, but significantly the result is a series of star studded and elaborate short stories which intercut between each other, all with beginnings that lead to ends but not necessarily all ending as you'd expect them to.
The stories vary between the melodramatic - an escaped prisoner (Jacques Nolot) becoming the servant of a man (Slimane Dazi) even if he has to hide his chains - to the exceptionally phantasmagoric and bizarre, such as another man developing an evil side to him called Lug Lug because of his obsession with a Janus statue, only for his narrative to end with his doppelganger appearing at an auction. Like a stream-of-consciousness the resulting structural style, intercutting the stories in-between each other depending on the mood of the moment of the whole film, allows for Maddin's feverish imagination to become even more absurd for the sake of it - that vampiric bananas is merely a small anecdote in a much larger work explains what one should expect.
The Forbidden Room is the first Maddin film to fully embrace extensive computer effects which will stand out aesthetically for many. In general the look and tone of the film however is like various different aging film reels being attached together, just as important to what the film is doing as the content is. Like a constantly distorting and decaying image, actors are introduced by their name and their character's in on-screen text, existing behind the veil of faded film stock of various colour tints and digitally added film scratches. Far from the worst of this type of technique, this feels like the creation of people who've watched a lot of older cinema and have learnt the style of these type of films even in their inter-title text fonts to make this effect actually work, giving this film the look of living celluloid as a result. Able to go from bold three-strip colour to monochrome, the result is entirely seamless.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
Is this the peak of Maddin's style? Not necessarily. Other films before this are just as abstract from his filmography in different ways, such as with Cowards Bend The Knees: The Blue Hands (2003) and its original peek-a-boo machine art installation context and its content. With The Forbidden Room the difference is found in how emphasised and constant the barrage of content is, the collage of narratives a barrage that literally crashes into each other as a character finds a book of climaxes which the viewer witnesses the examples of, including two blindfolded lovers crashing personal hot air blimps into each other. Instead of explaining the blatantly obvious, that this gets the High mark on the rating system, it's better to list some of the more memorable moments in a list since there are so many of them to choose from.
The fairytale quest of the lumberjack to rescue the damsel, which goes as far as picking up allies with special abilities, only for it to deflate in an anti-climatic ending with feminist leanings. Sparks cameoing, but with singer Russell Mael's face obscured by damage in the celluloid, and composing 'The Final Derrière', about the love and bottoms and scrapping brain matter out of someone's head to cure this fixation. Udo Kier appearing continuously, like many actors, in multiple roles as part of the film's dreamlike tone, actors playing characters in one story and then in another dreamt by a character in their original narrative. Charlotte Rampling in one single story, as Mathieu Amalric's ailing and bed ridden mother, but with her face appearing continually in the flashes of the film's memory. The continuous references to amnesia - from children fighting a trench warfare being told they'll suffer from an ailment where their relatives will forget them to a psychologist literally bringing a woman's inner child back to her on a train - which can be argued to be a key theme of the entire film and its resurrection of lost films. The gleeful perversion that's Maddin trademark, from nudity to eroticism, that manages to get away with being suitable for twelve year olds here in the UK in this particular film and how it presents it. The aswang narrative, of vampires whose footsteps hear from a distance actually mean they're close and could harm you. The simple fact that the film exists even in the context of Maddin's already unique career and has so much left un-discussed in this paragraph awaiting any viewer of The Forbidden Room.
Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique; Mindbender; Surreal; Weird
Abstract Tropes: Too many to write down
An absolute, delirious delight. My only regret is having missed the chance of seeing it on the cinema screen which, on Boxing Day 2015 when it was possible to, would've made a memorable Christmas memory. It's immensely rewarding as well due to how dense it is, apt for multiple rewatches and, in context of Maddin's career especially as the Séance project will be released as its own entity, it offers an exciting new page for his career. Especially as with Keyhole (2011) he switched to digital cameras, this film with his co-director Evan Johnson offers a paradoxical but fascinating tangent of his obsession with cinema's history becoming even more central to his cinema.