Director/Screenplay – Guy Maddin, Co-Director – Evan Johnson, Producers – David Christensen, Phoebe Greenberg, Phyllis Laing & Penny Mancuso, Photography (some scenes b&w & tinted) – Ben Kasulke & Stephanie Webber Biron, Music – Galen Johnson & John Staczek, Visual Effects Supervisor – Kyle Johnson, Production Design – Galen Johnson. Production Company – Phi Films/Buffalo Gal Pictures/The National Film Board of Canada
Roy Dupuis (Cesare), Clara Furey (Margot), Louis Negin (Marv/Mars/Mr Lanyon/Smithy/Organiser), Udo Kier (The Butler/The Dead Father/Count Yugh/Guard/Pharmacist), Mathieu Amalric (Thadeusz M/Ostler), Noel Burton (Wolf/Pilot/The Captain), Maria de Madeiros (The Blind Mother/Clotilde), Geraldine Chaplin (The Master Passion/Aunt Chance/Nursemaid), Caroline Dhavernas (Gong), Paul Ahmarani (Dr Deng/Speedy), Jacques Nolot (Bent/Minister of the Interior), Slimane Dazi (Baron Pappenheim), Amira Casar (Mrs M), Charlotte Rampling (Ostler’s Mother), Neil Napier (Man with Stones on His Ankles)
The crew of a submarine are trapped beneath the ocean and down to their last few hours of air. The captain remains locked in his quarters. A woodsman Cesare suddenly appears through one of the hatches. He tells them how he was a saplingjack who gathered a team of men to raid the cave of the Red Wolves who had abducted the lovely Margot. In order to get close to her, Cesare was forced to undergo the initiation rites to become one of the Red Wolves. She however was suffering from amnesia and haunted by dreams in which she was a singer in a fetish club.
Guy Maddin is one of Canada’s most extraordinary directors. Maddin is an obsessive raider of lost filmmaking styles. He seems to continually want to make silent movies – he is constantly shooting in black-and-white or colour tints, uses silent movie tricks like optical irises, intertitle cards and the exaggerated lighting schemes – and wields them into a stylistic synthesis that is all his own. And yet Maddin is also a surrealist. His films come with a comically deadpan melodrama, hilariously conflated purple prose, lunatic pieces of made-up mythology and underlying psycho-sexual contortions.
Maddin has made films such as Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Cowards Bend the Knee, or the Blue Hands (2003), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), My Winnipeg (2007) and The Green Fog (2017), which all fall into this cod-silent movie style. He went slightly astray with his most recent film before this, Keyhole (2011), which varied from the familiar and left all of his followers going “huh”. That said, The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s return to form and what might be his strongest film to date. It is certainly the most perfectly refined offering of the vision that he has striven for throughout his other films. Not to mention has the biggest cast he has employed to date including Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Roy Dupuis and Maria de Madeiros, along with numerous Maddin regulars.
The Forbidden Room is a sumptuously visual feast. It is worth watching for the extraordinary visuals tricks that Maddin pulls off alone (his visual effects supervisor Evan Johnson is credited as co-director). Maddin plays with every effect he has used before – mixed film stocks, silent movie lighting effects, mocked-up frame flickers and scratches, a mad melange of colour saturations, tints and overlays, obvious back projection effects, silent movie-styled text intros of the actors and characters they play, as well as the use of modern CGI morphings of images. It is like a regular Guy Maddin film on acid. The only films in memory where the frame itself is so alive with effect and constant overlays are the works of Peter Greenaway – see films like Prospero’s Books (1991), The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (2003).
Guy Maddin also has a love of nonsense storytelling, of deadpan tall tales or pieces of made-up mythology – something that hit the mark perfectly in My Winnipeg. What The Forbidden Room represents is something like The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), which delighted in winding itself into a vast labyrinth of story ends. Similarly, The Forbidden Room is not one story but an endless series of story vignettes where Maddin is constantly jumping off into digressions, back stories, tales being narrated, flashbacks within flashbacks, and dreams (even dreams being had by mustaches!). It is a madcap flurry where it feels that Maddin threw in whatever he felt like to achieve a deliciously madcap confection. The film opens with Louis Negin delivering a parody of 1950s public health films instructing people in proper bathing techniques; and jumps off into everything from stories about Mathieu Amalric who lives in an elevator and contrives to pass off his heirlooms as duplicates because he forgot his wife’s birthday; Udo Kier undergoing brain surgery for his obsession with female asses; skeleton-costumed women insurance appraisers; blind Maria de Madeiros fooled into a scheme where old gramophone recordings are used to convince her that her husband is still alive; Filipino aswang vampires; a man’s obsession with a Janus-headed bust; another man followed by his double; volcano worshippers and so on and so on. Even aside from that, it is a renaissance of classic Maddin themes and motifs – disreputable doctors and psychiatrists and their nutty treatments, amnesia, Freudian melodramas and thwarted desires.