'The Forbidden Room'
Gently insane and supremely talented Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin has never exactly been known for the clarity or simplicity of his movies. But even by his strange standards, ‘The Forbidden Room’ might be his wildest movie to date.
If nothing else, it’s likely his funniest. This intoxicating combination of twisted interludes almost plays like some sort of sketch comedy spin on Maddin’s usual experimentally archaic filmmaking ways, though obviously he tosses in plenty of unsettling imagery as well. That guy just can’t help himself.
The playful movie kicks off with a hilarious guide to taking a bath that’s been designed to look like a 1940s PSA. Like the rest of the scenes that follow, Maddin allegedly based it on a genuine lost film. That was his experiment this time, though watching the movie it’s tough to tell if that’s actually true or just an excuse for the filmmaker to empty out all the unused ideas that have been rattling around in that big strange brain of his over the years. Either way, it’s an opportunity for the director to cut loose with some of his most bizarre ideas to date. If you can get on Maddin’s unique wavelength, that’s a great thing. If not…well, then you’ll already know to steer clear.
The first substantial sequence after the prologue features a crew of sailors trapped in a submarine who are scared to go to the surface because the change in pressure might cause the explosive jelly they’re carrying to go kablooey. Eventually, they settle on an absurd plan that involves eating a bunch of pancakes because the air bubbles in the breakfast food could help smooth things over. Finally, a hatch opens in the sub deep under the water and a mountain man walks in, who tells the officers a story about rescuing a local beauty from a gang of savages who live in a cave. The mountain man’s tale plays out in flashback, which kicks off another flashback, and so on.
Maddin shot the film in Paris and was able to pull together an impressive cast including the likes of Udo Kier and Charlotte Rampling. Everyone’s deadpan commitment to the insanity of the script mirrors Maddin’s own. Along with co-director Evan Johnson, Maddin shot the oddball experiment digitally, then vividly recreated the look of damaged silent film stock in post. Some of the effects are truly remarkable, mimicking old Technicolor in one scene and a silent horror film the next. The movie has some stunning visual ideas that are among the most striking of Maddin’s entire career – especially a strange musical number in which the singer is perpetually covered by dancing circles of celluloid rot. Like all the director’s work, it’s pretty much impossible not to admire the project on a technical level.
Of course, the challenge with ‘The Forbidden Room’ (and all of Maddin’s movies) isn’t admiring the technical accomplishments, but connecting with anything beyond the aesthetic. At least in this case, Maddin’s absurdist humor is in full force, which helps a great deal. He’s a in a playful mood and that makes things far easier to swallow. At the same time, at two hours the movie can feel like much-too-much of a good thing. By the time Maddin starts circling back on his stories within stories and flashbacks within flashbacks, the effect isn’t one of narrative satisfaction but exhausted recognition.
‘The Forbidden Room’ might be a fun experiment, but that doesn’t make it an easy watch. Many viewers will be frustrated with it. Still, those who enjoy Maddin’s strangle and ingenious ways will undoubtedly be pleased by his latest effort. It’s one of the wildest and most amusing projects he’s made in years and well worth seeking out for any cinephile adventurous enough to take it.