To watch Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson’s latest film and complain it’s too much is to entirely miss the point. The Forbidden Room is a delirious kitchen-sink paean to genre, early film and storytelling, a fever-dream full of small moments and surreal humor forming an overwhelming whole. Like Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s unfortunate wedding guest, Maddin and Johnson have tales to tell, and you’re locked in for the full ride.
The film was shot concurrently with a forthcoming project, Seances, based on lost and never-realized films. Where Seances is a resurrection, skeletons fleshed out, The Forbidden Room is pure-concept id, a summation of the full breadth and depth of a cinephile’s passions jammed together, rolling up and down parenthetically nested tales. All stories and genres are represented, and gleefully inverted. The classic war story glorifying men’s heroics becomes a ragtag bunch of Totemkopf-topped boys with a rare amnesia causing them to be forgotten by everyone. The fairytale set-up of a young man winning his love with the help of very specifically talented friends has the rug ripped from under it when the group shows up and find they’ve been rendered useless; the maiden murdered her own captors.
There’s even a pop music video in the style of Fritz Lang’s M courtesy of Sparks (who previously worked with Maddin on their musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman). Featuring Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier, “The Final Derriere” sings of a destructive obsession (with butts) so primal it cannot be eradicated, even after shaving the brain down to nothing. Infatuation masquerading as love, willful ignorance, a refusal to face reality – no matter the genre, each tale ends in characters’ disappointment and loss, to be escaped through yet more story.
At over two hours the film might seem exorbitant, even indulgent; several critics walked out of the screening I attended having had enough. But this is a film meant to be exhausting, and exhaustive. It’s entirely self-aware – at the deepest point in the narrative, seven brackets in (take that, Inception), the narrator finds himself immediately interrupted by another character’s story and cuts him right off: “Just four birthdays ago…” “I’M SORRY SIR, I HAVEN’T THE TIME!”
The Forbidden Room revels in the possibility and infinite potential of Story. Characters and credits are multiplied and repeated, interweaving and doubling back. No tale started has a real resolution, but the film contains all resolutions, in the form of The Book of Climaxes, half of which have absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s come before. But these are the film’s most beautiful images – a bride and groom, blindfolded, racing towards each other in dirigibles to be joined in an explosive end, a brain in an ocean bombed, reflecting the morphing (digital!) deterioration of the film itself – entire worlds in a few brief glimpses revealing there’s yet more story to tell. —Danielle Burgos