Canada. Directed by Guy Maddin (co-directed by Evan Johnson), 2015. Starring Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Gregory Hlady, Mathieu Almaric, Noel Burton, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Amira Casar, Ariane Labed, Caroline Dhavernas, Karine Vanasse. 130 minutes.
2015 seems to have been a banner year for films seemingly designed to leave the viewer asking “What the Hell was that?” like Krusty the Clown after an episode of Worker & Parasite. We’ve already had the absurdist nightmare A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence. Now, Canadian Guy Maddin and collaborator Evan Johnson go on location in the human subconscious to bring us The Forbidden Room.
Things start with detailed instructions on how to take a bath, and gets weirder from there. A submarine crew trapped on their vessel with unstable explosives encounter a lumberjack (actually an aspiring lumberjack, or “saplingjack”) who appears suddenly and mysteriously, and relates a tale of attempting to rescue a beautiful woman named Margot from a gang of vicious thugs who worship a volcano. Margot, meanwhile, dreams of being trapped and amnesiac in a strange city, pursued by vampires. It’s something like an anthology film, which each story also serving as a narrative nesting doll for another story, and so on.
A few years ago I watched a movie called Anguish, which contains a scene in which people watch a movie about a guy watching a movie. That really impressed me, but The Forbidden Room goes so much deeper, until we get Udo Kier’s mustache–I am not even remotely fucking with you on this one–dreaming about a man whose cursed bust of the Roman god Janus causes his dark side to become manifest, kind of like Jekyll and Hyde, except in this case Hyde’s name is actually Lug-Lug.
Maddin seems to have a relationship with silent films and early talkies similar to the one Quentin Tarantino has with ’60s and ’70s foreign exploitation films, and he and Johnson take great pains to recreate that aesthetic in The Forbidden Room: sepia-toned or monochrome colorization, intertitle cards, obvious rear-projection backgrounds, adorably primitive SFX. Most importantly, their goal is apparently to replicate the oneiric quality of early motion pictures. When the Red Wolves sacrifice a tire to their volcano god, or when vampire bananas threaten Margot, these weird events actually do operate on a distinct form of dream logic based on the symbols of the subconscious mind. The film often feels like an adaptation of a big book of Freudian dream interpretations.
The end result is a big beautiful mess of a picture, almost always pretty to look at and to listen to, usually amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring a sublime brand-new song from art-rock wisenheimers Sparks called “The Final Derriere.” On the downside, the proceedings are usually extremely hard to follow, and I didn’t find the overall film engaging enough to justify its two-hours-plus running time.
Then again, like the dreams it evokes, The Forbidden Room doesn’t seem meant to be easily followed. If I’m correct in my interpretation of Maddin and Johnson’s intent, the filmmakers achieved exactly what they wished with this film; enjoying it is the audience’s problem. The Forbidden Room is Art, and that’s how Art works.