Film and TV

Guy Maddin Goes Down the Rabbit Hole – and Then Some — in The Forbidden Room

Through the ornate fonts, tints, intertitles, scores, acting techniques and camera tricks that have made his “directed by” credit the ultimate redundancy, Guy Maddin demonstrates in The Forbidden Room that he has forgotten more about silent movies and early talkies than almost anyone else will ever know. And it’s the forgetting part that’s key: His best work seems to arise from a state of half-consciousness, like the waking dreams of a cinephile who’s nodded off in front of some odd obscurity and continued the narrative in an addled brain.

The Forbidden Room isn’t the best film Maddin has ever made, but it’s without question his most film. At a shade over two hours (trimmed by ten minutes from Sundance), it’s his longest feature by a comfortable margin and perhaps his busiest, with a nesting-doll structure that tucks stories within stories within stories.

The origins of the film feed into this idea of half-forgotten cinema, spinning out from Maddin’s interactive “Seances” project, which unearthed lost films from the silent era by rewriting them and shooting them live, sometimes with little more than a logline or a title for inspiration.
Maddin and his fellow screenwriters, Evan Johnson (who also gets a co-director credit) and Robert Kotyk, start on a doomed submarine and plunge into various rabbit holes — and rabbit holes within rabbit holes — from there. Just as long as they stay tethered to the story that came before, they can hoist themselves out of narrative dead-ends.

Maddin establishes a proper anchor in the shake-and-bake suspense of the S.S. Plunger, where doom awaits a group of men in the Explosives Room. They remain paralyzed as a 200-pound block of depressurized blasting jelly melts before them: If they stay at the bottom of the ocean much longer, they’ll run out of oxygen, but if they surface, they’ll lose the water pressure that’s been keeping the blasting jelly from blowing the sub to smithereens. In the meantime, there are flapjacks, always flapjacks. Why flapjacks? Because the oxygen within their air pockets will keep the men alive twice as long. And yet somehow, a total stranger comes tumbling through the shaft, covered in freshwater. Turns out he’s a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) with a story to tell about rescuing a woman (Clara Furey) from the Red Wolves, a cave-dwelling clan whose initiation rituals include finger-snapping, offal-piling and bladder-slapping. And she has a story, too, involving jungle vampires known as the Aswang.

And so on. The Forbidden Room will often go several stories down before coming back up for air, though Maddin’s digressions don’t quite have the orderly structure his nesting-doll conceit might suggest. And despite all their interconnectedness, the film’s multiple stories still have to ramp up and work as separate units, and it’s here that The Forbidden Room occasionally lags and lurches.

But Maddin doesn’t dawdle on any for long, not when there’s a plum role for Udo Kier’s mustache waiting just around the corner. Adding splashes of color for the first time, Maddin accommodates his narrative embellishments with a broader, more arresting visual palette that brightens as the emotions intensify. When it finally comes time to consult “The Book of Climaxes,” he lands the montage of a lifetime, but the scope of The Forbidden Room hasn’t blunted his zest for the impish and trivial.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories