The Forbidden Room Dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson

[Kino Lorber; 2015]

Styles: (im)pure cinema, cinematic psychotherapy, surrealism
Others: Brand Upon the Brain!, The Heart of World, Careful, How to Take a Bath

Opening with a refilmed clip of exploitation director/producer Dwain Esper’s lost short How to Take a Bath, where pervy old Marv, robe half-open and hairy chest exposed, all-too-gleefully instructs us quite explicitly on the proper techniques of bathing (along with helpful tips like farts don’t disappear underwater), Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson set the perfect eerily humorous tone right off the bat, a seamless melding of a half-imagined early subversive cinema of the 20s and 30s refilmed through the lens of Maddin’s twisted mind. Consisting of 12 separate “stories,” most inspired by silent films that are lost or were never filmed (consisting of such gems of titles as Women Skeletons, The Strength of a Moustache and Hello Pop!) yet playfully re-imagined with essentially only the title in mind, The Forbidden Roomstrings them together not as mere stories-within-stories, instead birthing stories from within pelvic x-rays and volcanoes and dreams from within inanimate objects. Even Maddin’s best films usually have several sequences that overstay their welcome and drag on without comic relief or aesthetic invention, but The Forbidden Room is an absolutely manic, joyous romp through a hilariously warped revision of seemingly the entirety of silent film, an endlessly inventive celebration of the limitlessness and sheer dexterity of cinema from the first frame to the last.

I’ve seen over a dozen Guy Maddin films ranging from the brilliant Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg to the execrable Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Keyhole, but I never thought he was capable of something as utterly hypnotizing, masterful and engaging, even at a full two hours, as The Forbidden Room. Maddin is a film purist, and true historian in the least pretentious way if you’ve ever caught any of his Jolly Corner columns in FilmComment, so it was surprising to hear The Forbidden Room was shot digitally, but from the opening credits alone, the reason for the decision is made apparent, using the format’s ability to manipulate the image to replicate a fluidity of decay within the image itself to a far greater and more effective degree than any of his previous films. Its visual finesse and amorphous structure gives the impression of not a series of dreams, but an unpredictable odyssey through uncharted corridors of silent cinema within the mind of a mad cinephile.

Stories, scenes, and a glorious musical number starring Udo Kier as a man “obsessed with bottoms” flow and spill into one another, destabilized images transforming into unstable narratives that threaten to dissolve or mutate at any moment. That The Forbidden Room is able to sustain its hypnotically depraved gaze without interruption is impressive enough, but it not only fascinates but thoroughly entertains in repeatedly clever and innovative ways, engaging all of those pleasure centers tucked deep in the backs of our mind that most cinema typically ignores. Although it’s obviously far better to experience in the moment, it’s hard not to start listing highlight after highlight — women skeletons masquerading as insurance defrauders, the finger snapping and bladder-slapping competitions between a lumberjack and a tribal gang, The Red Wolves, who kidnapped a woman he’s after; another story follows the dreams of the recently deceased Udo Kier’s mustache as he repeatedly visits his wife and son (the final, final visit!) merely to share a beer with his friend from the afterlife… and of course the life-saving flapjacks no submarine should be without!

The sheer absurdity of these stories, shorts and musical interludes gives The Forbidden Room a bit of a freeform, almost-improvised feel, but there is a method to Maddin and Johnson’s madness. This odyssey of sorts creates a new taxonomy of a paradoxical experimental hyper-modern early cinema that never was but now is — an amalgamation of silent cinema’s visual and performance styles and broader psychodramas and a contemporary sense of humor, sexual liberation and stylistic experimentation. Rarely, even in Maddin’s career, has cinema bridged its distant past with its present and future so effectively, the intermingling of silent era imagery brought to life through purely digital means, the distinction between what is old and made anew and what is new and made to appear old is perpetually blurred. The fact that it is perhaps the funniest film — rivaled perhaps only by The Lobster — as well as the most successfully ambitious and daring film of 2015 is more than enough to make this one of the year’s best films and certainly one of it’s most cherished surprises. Hop in the submarine and prepare to have your mind blown.

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