Flatpack Film Festival – The Forbidden Room – Review ****

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In attempting to dissect and analyse the works of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, you may be doing him a major disservice. The 1000 Eyes of Dr Maddin, a highly recommended documentary that accompanied this particular screening of The Forbidden Room, contains a segment where the director laments the fact that cinema has become a breeding ground for psychoanalysis and classic criticism, explaining that he would rather his films were consumed like great pieces of music that people could relax into and “feel”. As an audience, it is understandable that we might find this difficult, so conditioned to linear narratives and fundamental characterisation but this does not mean we should ignore mavericks like Maddin….as if ignorance is even a possibility when dealing with this self confessed cinematic masochist.

This newest “project” is a purposefully obtuse and testing labyrinth of stories that inconspicuously swirl and tangle amongst themselves; tense, frightening tales of love, betrayal and horror that feel older than the medium itself. Maddin has spoken of being fascinated by lost movies, describing them as ghosts that wander the cinematic landscape without a home. His aim here is to take these lost ideas and finally put them to rest. To describe them might be to undervalue their visceral intent but nevertheless we start off with a tale of a submerged submarine, four shipmates and their desperate need to escape before sinking deeper into Maddin’s warped consciousness, trawling through the conflictions of a man addicted to pinching lady’s “derrieres” and the whirlwind romance of a bone doctor and his amnesiac patient, amongst other various insanities.

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Here is a filmmaker obsessed with the primal nature of cinema. Whilst there is an obvious adulation to various forms of early silent cinema throughout his work, The Forbidden Room is concerned with the very essence of cinema, where ideas are born and where they go when they die. Whilst his previous works like My Winnipeg and The Heart of the World have subverted the tropes we are used to seeing in silent, black and white feature films of the past, this feels like a different beast altogether. The film gestates and pulsates with energy, tearing at the seams, often bulging and burning at the most intense moments of emotion that ripple through the oddball narratives. Logic, both that of cinema and of reality, is thrown out the window in favour of a unique type of dream state, a clear relative of Lynch and Bunuel but one that exists on its own expressive plane.

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To see what many consider a dead art transformed in such a wicked and genius manner has a startling effect on the viewer. From an era where sexual tension and allegory were prevalent and violence had not yet become a staple of mainstream cinema, the blend of nostalgic romanticism with fetishism, extreme nudity and gore is both fascinating and disturbing. Some characters talk whilst others need intertitles and although this defies explanation, it only serves to ramp up the ethereal atmosphere. Clearly Maddin’s breakneck editing style and infatuation with extreme close-ups reflects that of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc but he also takes cues from the pioneering phantasmagoria of less accessible early horror films such as Haxan. Whilst these films feel so authentic in their style and tone, they are also insatiably surreal. This, however, does not effect the control that the filmmaker has over the image, the sublime Technicolor aesthetic in particular being an absolute joy to look at, even if you find yourself losing interest in the ever-maddening plot.

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So much influence breeds a unique, imposing work that will undoubtedly frustrate some and exult others but each reaction will be an intuitive one and that is Maddin’s only concern. Throughout the two-hour running time, we are being subjected to the whims of a director in a way that many other filmmakers simply cannot achieve. Like a witch doctor Maddin has brought these stories to life but they don’t feel quite right and they aren’t supposed to act this way. By instilling his own nightmares, fears and sexual desires onto celluloid for an unsuspecting audience to consume, he does what has become the norm for him: he creates something remarkable, exciting and compulsory.

The Forbidden Room and supplemental documentary The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin were screened together at Flatpack Film Festival. For more information on their esoteric programme, please check the festival’s website – http://flatpackfestival.org.uk/ 

Steven Ryder is a Film and TV graduate and a quintessentially British lover of film in that he never really watches British films. Moderator of one of the internet's largest film discussion forums, TrueFilm, Steven is dedicated to lurching between trash and high art, often resulting in a cinematic whiplash of sorts.