‘Keyhole’ currently playing at the IFC Center

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“Keyhole,” Canadian director Guy Maddin’s latest homage to the expressionist melodrama of early cinema, follows the gangster Ulysses as he navigates a home of memory and ghosts to reconcile with his wife Hyacinth after a long absence.

His recollections having dimmed while away, he uses a drowning girl who has acquired his memories to regain the past while slowly making his way to his wife’s bedroom, as the ghost of his father, chained naked to Hyacinth’s bed when he’s not busy whipping spectrophiliacs, repeatedly intones “Remember Ulysses.” Employing mood as narrative, Maddin explores how the intentions behind sexual and psychological intercourse with specters of desire and regret determine their outcome, namely death or redemption for those who sleep with phantoms of the unreal.

Ghosts being memory congealed in time and space, Maddin brings the metaphor to life to show how the past forever haunts the present, how what is absent never truly vanishes. “Keyhole” is less a direct adaptation of “The Odyssey” than was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Rather, it uses the look and template of Pre-Code Hollywood and Weimar Republic gangster films to imagine how the couple (wonderfully played by Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini) felt during the first moments of their reunion. Ulysses, uncertain about his welcome upon returning to Ithaca after decades of triumph of sorrow; Penelope, excited yet weary and mistrustful to see the man who was her husband so long ago.

The film gets at what is lost in voyage and adventure, namely innocence and love, which once squandered must atrophy and die. In Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” the eponymous “idle king . . . with an aged wife” says, “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” For Maddin this arch is a keyhole through which we view another life, the one that we have lived, as it glimmers and fades away.

The forgotten memories that Ulysses uncovers along the way are a combination of the beautiful and ridiculous, both devastating and absurd. He comes to realize that his naked hostage is really his son, the drowning girl’s ex-boyfriend and tragic cause of her fate, whom he remembers as a carefree child playing with Hyacinth when she too was young and happy. A different, seemingly deranged son is constantly seen furiously masturbating behind closed doors; the narrator at one point even shouts “Double Yahtzee!” when the boy is discovered. In this ghost play whose characters are literally chained to their memories, freedom can only come from the expiation of reconciling oneself to one’s guilt and that of those one loves. Though the lovers have betrayed one another, there is perhaps another faith that cannot be shattered. As W.S. Merwin writes in his poem “Odysseus,” “And what wonder / If sometimes he could not remember / Which was the one who wished on his departure / Perils that he could never sail through, / And which, improbable, remote, and true, / Was the one he kept sailing home to?”


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