'Life in Its Thrall—a Nightmare!'

The Forbidden Room
(Canada, 120 min.)
Dir. Guy Maddin, co-dir. Evan Johnson; Writ. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk
Starring: Louis Negin, Roy Dupuis, Clare Furey, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Sophie Desmarais, Karine Vanasse, Marie Brassard, Mathieu Amalric
Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media
“Life in its thrall—a nightmare!” reads an intertitle within Guy Maddin's hallucinatory phantasmagoria The Forbidden Room. The Forbidden Room is Maddin in his thrall, at the peak of his ridiculously extravagant weirdness. Every once in a rare while comes a film that lets an eccentric auteur unleash himself to his full potential, and The Forbidden Room is a richly dreamy, somnambulant kino-opera of style and experimentation. Only Maddin would even dare to attempt such a dense experiment, let alone achieve it. The Forbidden Room is one of Maddin’s strangest and best films yet.

The Forbidden Room is second only to My Winnipeg in the Maddin oeuvre as the director thrusts the viewer into a dream world of style and meaning. Layers of film history richly create a dream world in both films, but while My Winnipeg intimately connects Maddin’s own history with the history of the titular sleepwalking city (in addition to some flat-out lies), The Forbidden Room sees Maddin test the limits of film form on an even greater canvas. The scale is larger than anything else is in his wild, crazy, wacky world, and the ambitious lunacy of The Forbidden Room makes it so gobsmacking and grand.

Maddin wafts into the subconscious as The Forbidden Room wades the deep waters of the mind. The film runs with the metaphors of depth and memory as it tells of a submarine crew trapped at seas as their vessel sinks further and further into towards the ocean floor. The men have limited oxygen, so their minds begin to get the better of themselves. They survive on canned pancakes, which handily have air bubbles to keep the men going, as the seamen (a term that doubtlessly makes Maddin giggle) find a leader in Cesare, played by Roy Dupuis (The Sound of Trees), a random coureur de bois who finds himself on the boat. He leads the men through different rooms of the vessel in search of their captain and communication tools. These rooms, perceptibly, embody different chambers of the subconscious. As the men see what remains in each room, they open doors to new visions percolating within their oxygen-deprive and pancake saturated brains.

The story of the seamen is but a story within a story as The Forbidden Room spins a labyrinthine web in which vignettes offer a story within a story within a story within a story, etc. The story of the seamen, really, exists as a fun bit of storytelling from the Hugh Hefner-like narrator guy (Louis Negin, in a hilariously loony performance) who instructs the viewer on the pleasures and histories of bathing. He tells the audience how to scrub the crotchal area properly as he sips a cocktail in his sleazy bathrobe. The bubbles and bathwater inevitable lead to the tale of trapped seamen, and as the seamen dream of escape, the story dissolves into another as Cesare wades through the thick bushes of the jungle and arrives upon a tribe of cave. These cave dwellers have a strong leader in Margot (Clare Furey) with whom they sleep in an orgy-like den of writhing jungle bodies. The volcano that looms over the people is ready to burst and a sacrifice of animals and tapioca pudding sets passions a fire.

Cue more layers of the dream world as the bodies lie in close comfort in the cave dwelling. Shorter, faster, crazier vignettes abound as passions rage. These scenes bring a throng of familiar faces such as Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Mathieu Amalric along with a range of Canadian talents including Karine Vanasse, Marie Brassard, and Sophie Desmarais. Each actor usually plays a handful of characters, all of whom The Forbidden Room introduces with title cards that drolly name both the character and they player in good old classic Hollywood fashion. These scenes explore the primitive urges and drives that live buried within the mind as The Forbidden Room maddeningly channels different drives and emotions with a collage of styles and aesthetics borrowed from different eras of film history. The film samples Murnau, Eisenstein, and others as the carnivalesque cornucopia embodies lust, rage, pleasure, and pain in a mix of repeated images and nightmarish impressions. The deeper one dives into the ocean, the darker it gets.

Don’t even try to follow The Forbidden Room from a perspective of narrative and story, although the film dexterously balances a tightrope of coherence as it wades in and out of these sleeping waters like a tired mind rousing itself through fitful sleep. Enjoy The Forbidden Room as an impression, as an immersive and challenging film experience that engages the mind with every element that film has at its disposal. The Forbidden Room is formalism at its finest as Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson layer the film in aesthetics of the silent era, such as intertitles, irises, exaggerated acting techniques, and other arcana that film buffs desire. The filmmakers filter The Forbidden Room with layers of emulsion bubbling on the surface of the images, which makes the whole enterprise resemble an offering to the volcano that melts and percolates as ideas and scenes fuse together.

The Forbidden Room is downright maddening for every moment of its insane mind-game, but this experimental feature oddly feels like one of Maddin’s most accessible films even if it seems like his most avant-garde, if not defiantly radical, work. The film offers so much for viewers to swim in that it’s impossible not to dive in and embrace that cracked-out Maddin of The Forbidden Room’s scope and vision. The technical and artistic accomplishment of the film is simply awesome, as is the filmmakers’ richly passionate knowledge of classic film. If life in its thrall is a nightmare, then life as a film is a dream.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Forbidden Room is now playing in limited release.