Directed by: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson.
Written by: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson & Robert Kotyk and John Ashbery and Kim Morgan.
Starring: Roy Dupuis (Cesare), Clara Furey (Margot), Louis Negin (Marv / Smithy / Mars / Organizer / Mr. Lanyon), Udo Kier (Count Yugh / The Butler / The Dead Father / Guard / Pharmacist), Gregory Hlady (Jarvis / Dr. Deane / A Husband), Mathieu Amalric (Thadeusz M___ / Ostler), Noel Burton (Wolf / Pilot / The Captain), Geraldine Chaplin (The Master Passion / Nursemaid / Aunt Chance), Paul Ahmarani (Dr. Deng / Speedy), Caroline Dhavernas (Gong), Slimane Dazi (Baron Pappenheim), Maria de Medeiros (The Blind Mother / Clotilde), Charlotte Rampling (The Ostler's Mother), Karine Vanasse (Florence Labadie), Kim Morgan (Kim), Marie Brassard (Mysterious Necklace Woman).
One viewing is probably not enough to fully appreciate – or hell, even fully understand, the latest film by Guy Maddin (co-directed by Evan Johnson) – The Forbidden Room. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t among Maddin’s very best films – preferring films like My Winnipeg or The Saddest Music in the World or The Heart of the World (one of the greatest 6 minute films ever made). But the more time passes, and the more I return to The Forbidden Room in my thoughts, the more I think that perhaps it does belong there. It certainly is the most Guy Maddin film that Guy Maddin has ever made – a crazy, visually spectacular journey into cinema’s lost past. To describe the plot of The Forbidden Room would be fool’s errand there’s just way too much of it – and to be honest, it all gets a little confusing at times. What Maddin and Johnson decided to do is research old, lost films and then “remake” them. Sometimes this is based on old reviews, sometimes little more than a poster or a tagline, that Maddin and Johnson spin off into some crazy narrative that lasts just a few minutes. But The Forbidden Room isn’t just a series of short films string together – that would be too simple. The narratives spin off into each other, with such a complicated nesting doll structure. Put it this way, if the nesting doll structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel had 4 different dolls – The Forbidden Room has many multiples of that dozen. Now you’re probably starting to see why I think I need to see the film again – at least once – to wholly appreciate it.
Maddin has assembled a huge, international cast of stars to be in the film. The first face we see is by veteran actor Louis Negin, who is hosting an instructional video on how to take a bath (can you believe that many people now take them every other day – some even every day). Negin will return in multiple roles throughout the film, as will many other members of the cast – just to make everything that much more confusing. What Maddin and Johnson essentially have done here is create a rabbit hole of narrative in which we continue to drop – so the water in the bathtub becomes an ocean, and there is a submarine in there, that cannot surface because it’s would explode if it did, but they’re running out of air, even when they factor in the air pockets from all the pancakes they eat (don’t ask), and their captain is missing, so they go looking for him, and instead find a lumberjack, and when they ask how he got there, he tells them a story about he and a group of his fellow lumberjacks trying to save the woman they all love, and how he had to pass a series of manly tests, but the woman also dreams of being an amnesiac and a singer, who will eventually sing a song about a character played by Udo Kier, who is obsessed with derrieres, and on and on and on and on.
The Forbidden Room is, in short, a pretty crazy film. It’s a film that I think you could probably see dozens of times, and still be surprised by what happens next, because there is so little rhyme or reason to it all. And also, because Maddin and Johnson have created such an immersive film – an impressive technical achievement, where they pretty much throw every technique – both old and new – at the screen to get every shot to look wholly unique and different.
Watching The Forbidden Room is, admittedly, a rather exhausting experience. It’s a film that’s impossible to keep up with, and yet one you want to dive back into when it’s all over. I’m still not convinced that it’s among Maddin’s truly great films – not like My Winnipeg, which had lots of digressions, much like this film, but one that Maddin seemed to have complete control over. This one spins wildly away from even Maddin. Which, of course, it’s one of its many, many charms. The Forbidden Room is far from perfect – but if it was perfect, it wouldn’t be half the film it now is.