DVD Review: The Forbidden Room

ForbiddenDVDSTUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTORS: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson | STARS: Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin
RELEASE DATE: 3/8/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $34.95
BONUSES: audio commentary by directors; “Living posters”; “Endless ectoloops”; “Once Upon a Chicken” short film
SPECS: NR | 119 min. | Comedy | 1.78:1 widescreen | 5.1 Surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

One has to be careful when talking about Guy Maddin’s (My Winnipeg) films. The impulse to rhapsodize about his densely-layered, gorgeously odd images or to analyze his broad-ranging cinephilic references can easily make one forget that his films are absurdist comedies, which simultaneously spoof and wallow in melodramatic clichés from several different eras. The Forbidden Room is just such a creation — a richly textured work that explores the history of cinema while still registering as a very silly comedy.

The film’s plot can’t be recounted, because Room is actually a series of different plotlines nested inside each other in the manner of Russian dolls. The opening involves a stranded submarine crew and a woodsman’s search for a missing young woman. From that point on, though, Maddin and his co-director Evan Johnson (along with co-scripter Robert Kotyk) spin a number of yarns that are returned to intermittently and then are eclipsed.

The proliferation of characters and storylines can easily bewilder even the most attentive viewer, but piecing together the storyline of a Maddin film is never a top priority. Here the reason there are so many plots is a simple one: as part of an ongoing project to remake lost films, Guy and his crew crafted a number of shorts that were assembled into The Forbidden Room. One needn’t know which lost film is being riffed on (the only place they are identified is in the audio commentary track) to appreciate the insanely imaginative endeavor that Maddin and Johnson are undertaking.

the-forbidden-room-1In the “second act” of the film one wishes that Room were a shorter feature, as 119 minutes is a long time for a sensory assault of the kind found here. At its best, though, the film is an incredible work — a sort of weird alternative “history” of the movies that jumps from genre to genre and offers truly inspired craziness, from an insurance defrauding scheme that involves “women skeletons” (actually just women wearing skeleton-patterned leotards) to a man (Mathieu Amalric, Venus in Fur) who lives in an “elevator apartment” and doesn’t want his wife to know that he’s forgotten their anniversary.

The most striking aspect of the film is its editing. With the aid of editor John Gurdebeke, Maddin’s films have moved further and further away from his initial fixation — silent cinema and early talkies — and closer to the kind of fragmented, dreamlike editing found in underground cinema. The viewer is constantly aware of the artifice involved in making movies from the opening credits, which are repeated in different sets of archaic fonts. Room has also been made to look like an old film print that seems to be decaying as you are watching it.

While the film would be nearer to perfect if it was 20-30 minutes shorter, the wisest move made by Maddin and Johnson is to delay the appearance of the “name” arthouse stars until the last third of the picture. Thus, except for short appearances in a wonderfully weird musical interval (a Maddin music-vid for Sparks’ “The Final Derriere”), we are rewarded for sifting through the many narratives with eccentric characters rendered beautifully by Amalric, Udo Kier (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Andre Wilms (La vie De Boheme), Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction), and the inimitable Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter).

Maddin’s films have always been accompanied by a neat trove of supplements, and this release is no exception. For the audio commentary, Guy assumes his neurotic “Canadian Woody Allen” persona (which is always contradicted by the assuredness and unique nature of his filmmaking). Here he reflects on the amount of self-loathing he feels — and then he notes, rather cheerily, that self-loathing implies a certain amount of self-love.

The other supplements are all avant-garde in nature, leading one to suspect that Maddin might shed his narrative ties completely in the future. The first item, “Living posters,” is composed of teasers for the film posted on the Net before its release; they are “breathing” images from the feature. “Endless ectoloops” (which, at eight minutes, long, are far from endless) are much the same — images from the film that are made to breathe and decay, revealing other images beneath them.

The short “Once a Chicken (a séance with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy),” named for the Bauhaus artist, is a visual assault that blends eye-catching patterns in an extremely trippy exploration of the old “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

As Maddin moves away from narratives in his shorts, one can take comfort in the finale of The Forbidden Room, in which he briefly revisits the characters from several of the preceding stories, in effect providing “closure” for their tales. It’s at this point that it becomes apparent that, while the film is an exuberant visual spectacle, it is also an old-fashioned tribute to storytelling. Very odd storytelling…

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”