‘The Forbidden Room’
Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
Stars: Roy Dupuis, Mathieu Amalric
5 (out of 5) Globes
It’s been too long since we had a proper Guy Maddin movie —that is, those flurries of retro silliness, like “Careful,” “The Saddest Music in the World” and the dynamic short “The Heart of the World,” stuffed lousy with gags, bygone filming styles and intertitles like “Bones! Bones! BONES!” Naturally, “The Forbidden Room” —his first “Guy Maddin”-y feature since 2008’s “My Winnipeg,” with the live-action-and-color “Keyhole” in between — spills over two hours (even longer in its original Sundance cut before some fine-tuning). Returning to his shtick with a vengeance, it’s like a suitcase packed so tight the zipper won’t even work, overflowing with every inspired idea he’s had over a long interim. It’s exhausting, but feeling like your head will explode is part of the fun.
There’s no point in even tying these overflowing ideas into a coherent story. Maddin, and his new co-conspirator Even Johnson, don’t even try. They adopt a nesting doll structure that’s part “The Saragossa Manuscript” but even more like a night lost to aimless Internet browsing, one ending with 50 tabs open. An old-timey amateur-style intro about how to have a “Saturday night bath,” offered by a lecherous gentleman in a too-open robe, leads into a tale of troubled seamen on a submarine. That segues into a spelunking adventure where they encounter a cave cult, which makes way for such specific (or nonexistent) sub-genres as the mountain movie, the volcano movie, the lumberjack movie, amnesia movies and any other forgotten, arcane movie type Maddin got his paws on.
There is, simply put, a lot of stuff. There are secret societies, zeppelins, literal dick measuring contests and, of course, squid theft and “offal piling.” There’s Udo Kier doing brain surgery and Mathieu Amalric facing off against his double. There’s a “darkling couch.” There are quotes from Sappho and Keats. There’s a Sparks song, composed for Maddin and whose slick production stands in puckish contrast to the deliberately rough, often Kucharian look that Maddin, once a proponent of creating the old with actual old film, now exerts untold energy recreating digitally. There’s also a “Mysterious Necklace Woman.”
One is tempted to grab at every ridiculous sight and wordage, like a ravenous kid in a warehouse-sized candy store. After all, that — along with seizing upon the usual Maddin concerns, which are often anguished anxieties about death and dying and being transformed against one’s will — is all there is. (One also doesn’t want to just fill a review with the best yuks, though there are so many there’s no chance of ruining the fun.) Simply having stuff and lots of it isn’t always a good thing; the last “Avengers” adventure was a cacophony of pure things, bombarding viewers with too many characters, too many smackdowns, too much un-care-about-able plot.
There’s no chance of emotional investment in “The Forbidden Room” either, but the stuff — counting into the hundreds, maybe thousands — is shockingly, bewilderingly top-notch. More than that, the sheer pummeling of viewers is meant to tire one out. Get deep enough into its labyrinth of stories and you’re effectively lost, being dragged through a foggy morass with possibly no exit in sight. It’s like a Chantal Akerman or Bela Tarr film where time evaporates, except instead of long, glacial long takes of pure nothing there’s non-stop busy-ness.
Maddin has often resorted to putting a physical strain on the audience; the original, installation version of his 2003 sex-and-hockey opus “Cowards Bend the Knee” indeed had viewers watch episodes through a peephole while down on the knees. Here he wants to affect you physiologically, just by watching it no frills. The head aches, the body hurts from sitting (and chuckling), the eyes strain from trying to parse smudgy images captured in git-r-done handheld, presumably filmed in a grandfather’s dank, cluttered basement. Soon you may think you just hallucinated a walk-on from Charlotte Rampling or a bit about poison-absorbent leotards. It’s like binge-watching the greatest hits from a never-ending sketch comedy show, one happened upon in a cabinet in a far-off nation, right next to the missing reels of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” If Maddin waits another eight years to do this again, it may be worth the wait.