Ever since he first burst upon the scene in 1988 with his hypnotic debut feature "Tales from the Gimli Hospital," Guy Maddin has been one of those filmmakers whose new work I most eagerly look forward to seeing. In a time when most movies are little more than filmed deals that can spend millions of dollars on elaborate special effects sequences that fade from the mind almost as soon as they play out, he has created some of the most bizarre, hilarious, haunting and memorable imagery that I have ever seen in a film—who could forget the sight of beer baroness Isabella Rossellini standing upon artificial legs filled with her own product in "The Saddest Music in the World," or the horses stuck in the middle of a frozen river in "My Winnipeg"? Even if the films themselves do not entirely work as a whole (not that this happens very often), one can always be certain that one or two moments that will go straight into your movie memory bank.
His latest film is "The Forbidden Room," co-directed with Evan Johnson. Even by Maddin's standards, it is a pretty wild ride in all aspects, starting with its very concept. From what I have been able to gather, the initial inspiration was a pair of museum installations in Paris and Montreal in which Maddin and a small crew would shoot a complete short film a day while the public looked on, and the resulting films are to be a part of a future interactive website project. The conceit behind the individual films is that they were all inspired by titles of old films that have either been lost or which were never made in the first place. Here, they have all been combined into a hallucinatory fantasia in which more than 18 different narratives bounce off of and flow into each other in unexpected ways, while Maddin presents them in a style reminiscent of the era spanning the end of the silent era and the beginning of the talkies.
The film opens with the faux-educational film "How to Take a Bath," in which a creepy old man instructs viewers on the finer points of bathing while we see people putting his theories into practice. From there, we journey to a submarine in imminent danger of disaster—the captain has gone nuts, a case of "explosive jelly" has gone bad and will blow up if the sub tries to surface, and there is only two days of oxygen left. (Luckily, the crew is able to extend their breathing time thanks to their all-pancake diet—they are able to consume the air bubbles contained in said griddle cakes.) The turmoil of the crew is interrupted by the inexplicable arrival of a novice lumberjack (a "saplingjack," if you will) with a story to tell about his efforts to rescue the fair Margot from a fearsome gang known as the Red Wolves—to infiltrate the gang, he must endure a series of trials that includes offal piling and bladder slapping contests. For her part, Margot soon disappears into her own dream world where she becomes an amnesiac flower girl, sings in a nightclub and lands on an island with volcanoes, squid thieves and a "Lost Generation attorney" with whom she has a brief lesbian affair.
Needless to say, there is much more. A surgeon who has spent virtually his entire life at the Oracle Bones Hospital and who is said to have "never been more than one hundred paces from the bones" saves a woman suffering from multiple bone fractures following a motorcycle accident—he takes her to an island paradise to propose, but at the last second is kidnapped by "The Skull-Faced Man and his gang of Skeletal Insurance Defrauders," all decked out in poisonous leotards. Other characters are somehow transformed into mutated bananas. A man forgets to get his wife a birthday present, and instead creates a ruse that requires him to murder his butler at one point. The family of the dead man hardly notices, and a recording of his voice winds up filling most of his usual duties. Another gift-related incident goes wrong when a man buys his beloved a statue of Janus, and winds up creating a malevolent double of himself dubbed "Lug Lug—Hideous Impulse Incarnate."