Director/Photography (b&w + tinted)/Production Design – Guy Maddin, Screenplay – Guy Maddin & George Toles, Story – George Toles, Producers – Greg Klymkiw & Tracy Traeger, Music – John MucCulloch, Art Direction – Jeff Solylo. Production Company – The Greg and Tracy Film Ministry/Telefilm Canada/Canada-Manitoba Cultural Industries Development Office
Kyle McCulloch (Grigorss), Brent Neale (Johann), Gosia Dobrowolska (Zenaida), Sarah Neville (Klara Trotter), Victor Cowie (Herr Trotter), Paul Cox (Count Knotgers), Michael O’Sullivan (Father’s Ghost), Vince Rimmer (Franz), Katya Gardner (Sigleinde Trotter)
In the Swiss mountain village of Tolzbad, children are warned to be careful of every sound they make because the cry of a baby or even the bleating of a lamb could trigger an avalanche. Babies and old people are gagged and the vocal cords of animals slit to stop them making any inadvertent noise. Johann, a student at the local butler training school, asks Klara Trotter to marry him. However, Johann then has an erotic dream and becomes sexually fixated on his mother. Meanwhile, Johann’s brother Grigorss graduates from butler training school and goes to work for Count Knotgers – only to discover that the Count is in fact his father and wants to adopt him. Klara is forced to work in the mines but this causes her sanity to slip. Meanwhile, the ghost of Johann’s father tries to raise the eldest son Franz, who sits in the attic and never speaks, into action before something terrible happens.
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin seems to be etching out a unique arthouse surrealist niche for himself with such consistently weird films as Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989), Archangel (1990) and, subsequent to Careful, the likes of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), his silent ballet adaptation Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Cowards Bend the Knee, or The Blue Hands (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), My Winnipeg (2007), Keyhole (2011), The Forbidden Room (2015) and The Green Fog (2017).
Careful is constructed as a parody-come-homage to German Expressionism, in particular to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a film whose style many filmmakers have tried to mimic and recreate with mixed effectiveness, but Careful is the most successful attempt yet. Maddin realises that to go where Caligari went requires not only an reproduction of its physical style – the distorted flats, the exaggerated shadows etc – but to be able to find the frame of mind that all the distortion seemed to be trying to squeeze its audience into as well. That said, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Careful are also very different films – if anything, Careful plays like cod-Caligari where Maddin undercuts the stylised netherworld with the deadpan weirdness of a David Lynch.
Every scene in Careful seems to take place with a different colour tint or in garishly hyper-real pastel shades. The camera lens appears almost entirely gauzed over throughout. The sets and costumes are truly bizarre – the mountains appear as deliberately painted flats or mere silhouettes behind translucent curtains; the castle doorways are rhomboidal arches so angular that they barely allow human passage; all the menfolk of the village wear exaggerated Teutonic costumery with comically rouged cheeks and high cropped-back haircuts; the miners (all women) go to work in bloomers and hilariously over-ornamented floral hats. It could be The Cabinet of Dr Caligari brought down to the level of primary school papier-mache pantomime – what one might call Expressionist kitsch.
All the deadpan weirdness makes for an extremely funny film. The dialogue is written as often hilariously inappropriate cliches – Maddin frequently has the audience in hysterics. Some scenes like when Brent Neale starts cutting through Gosia Dobrowolska’s corset with a giant pair of blue shears; or the scene when Kyle McCulloch strays into the white room and drips candle wax onto the cheek of the Count’s dead mother, smearing her complexion and then tries to repair it with fruit stains are riotously funny.
However, nothing in the film quite matches the opening moments that come delivered in breathless rhythmed narration by Victor Cowie – warnings to children to be careful not to make noise lest they trigger avalanches, which then cut away to startling vignettes of babies and geriatrics being gagged, animals having their throats slit to stop them bleating, and the comic images of Paul Cox having his eye pecked out by a cuckoo clock and then being blinded a second time. There is a mesmerising hallucinatory quality to the rhythmic recitative of the sequence, something the rest of the film never quite achieves. One complaint about the film might be that having raised the vision of a village that lives in permanent need to be careful of the slightest sound, Guy Maddin disappointingly fails to make use of such a fascinatingly wrought image throughout the rest of the film.