The Forbidden Room – Film Review

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The Forbidden Room – Film Review by Shane Larkin

Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
Writers: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson
Stars: Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin

If watching a movie can generally be described as peering through a window to another world, the experience of watching a Guy Maddin film is more like being dunked into a vat of melting celluloid and glimpsing sharp fragments of fever dreams through the deformed perforations in the nitrate stock. Something like that. There are few filmmakers who can boast such an uncompromising and exhilaratingly singular vision. Indulgent, sure, but in a way that’s usually fascinating and strangely compelling. And his latest (co-directed by newcomer Evan Johnson) is like a joyous implosion of all the hallmarks he’s become known for; a heady mix of frenetic cutting, stilted B-movie goofiness, flighty lyricism and fetishistic silent movie homage (complete with ubiquitous title cards), all smothered in hazy two-strip technicolour delirium. It is an exhausting experience, however, intermittently riveting and maddening, so if you decide to take the plunge be warned that it almost feels designed to provoke restlessness.

The Forbidden Room’s main narrative thrust, if you can call it that, concerns a group of men trapped in a submarine carrying volatile cargo, and running out of oxygen fast. A “never-before-seen” woodsman appears on board, prompting one of the men to start telling stories as they all struggle to make their way to the captain’s chamber in search of guidance. Along the way, they try to conserve oxygen by sucking on the air pockets in their breakfast flapjacks. This doesn’t even begin to approximate the labyrinthine trip that awaits over the next two hours, as stories become flashbacks within asides within songs within dreams, where moustaches have memories and insurance defrauding skeleton women run wild.

Maddin and Johnson keep the viewer’s mind in a constant state of instability, as the nested narratives relentlessly pile on top of one another and the frantic editing refuses to make any concessions for the sake of conventional clarity. Some of Maddin’s recurring preoccupations begin to emerge (memory, sexual anxiety, repression, the nature of storytelling itself), but the film is mostly content with celebrating the boundless audacity of the imagination, absurd humour, and cinema’s potential for discovery, renewal and reappropriation. Maddin is in constant communion with the spirits of a lost era of cinema and he pulls apart every technique in the book, old and new, with a gleeful sense of anarchy. This is a marvel of visual design and digital trickery.

If you can allow yourself to fall into its groove, The Forbidden Room may be well worth a visit. Maddin’s feature-lengths can’t always sustain the potent energy that defines his best short films and that is sort of the case here. It’s an unwieldy and almost formless work by design. But on the other hand, this is that breed of sensory phantasmagoria that doesn’t come around very often, and that really needs to be seen to be believed. A formidable artist emptying a river of ideas and madness into a pot and letting it pulsate and boil over and spew forth whatever riches it may hold. Often frustrating, but you won’t forget it any time soon.


Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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