The Forbidden Room – New York Film Festival Review


By James Hancock  September 29th, 2015

I just met one of my favorite living filmmakers, Guy Maddin, so any chance of writing an objective review (whatever that means) of his latest film The Forbidden Room has totally evaporated. Guy Maddin is here in town participating in the 53rd New York Film Festival, and I was lucky enough to have a front row seat for the action. If you are unfamiliar with Guy Maddin, I wrote a lengthy rant about his career a few months ago that will bring you up to speed. Apart from his astonishing films, Guy Maddin is also one of our greatest film historians, one who specializes in the transition period between the silent era and the early talkies, in particular lost films that will never be seen again. It haunts him that there are films by Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, F. W. Murnau and his personal favorite, Jean Vigo, that he will never see. For years Maddin has been experimenting with making short films loosely based on some of these lost films which brings us full circle to The Forbidden Room. This film essentially is a multitude of short films cleverly woven together into an intricate narrative. Each one of these vignettes is based on a lost film. For reasons only Maddin can explain, these films were shot live in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Centre PHI in Montreal where anyone could stroll in and watch the action. In order to channel the spirit of the original films, Maddin and his actors would engage in seances in order to get attuned with the intentions of the original filmmakers and actors. Remarkably, this unconventional approach to filmmaking was the least unusual feature of The Forbidden Room. There is the film itself to grapple with, a delightful cinematic equivalent of a Russian Nesting Doll with stories hidden within stories that should keep Maddin’s fans happily revisiting the movie for many years.

I say the following with absolute love and affection for his brilliance, but Guy Maddin might be the least accessible, least commercially viable filmmaker that has ever lived. The barrier of entry into acquiring a taste for his style of filmmaking is considerable. I’ve heard Maddin describe his style as opera without the singing but it is better to allow the work to speak for itself as can be seen in the trailer linked above. The movie was too much for many in the crowd tonight and they were rudely checking their phones in boredom or collapsing sideways in their seats in order to impress the rest of us with their stupidity and bad manners. The Maddin fans were easy to pick out of the crowd in that they were cackling wildly with glee as any Maddin fan is likely to do when watching his movies. Once you get over the hump in getting into his work, he becomes one of the funniest storytellers on the planet. My only advice in reaching this wonderful, happy place is to start at the beginning of his career with Tales from the Gimi Hospital (1988) and work your way forward. Maddin’s style has evolved in such leaps and bounds over the years I can only imagine how jarring the experience must be for uninitiated viewers watching his new movies for the first time. The Forbidden Room might be Maddin’s most insane production of his career but for fans of narrative filmmaking, the movie is an absolute feast. Starring an incredible cast including but not limited to Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier, the film mashes together a crisis on a submarine, Canadian lumberjack adventures, a man afflicted with an ass fixation, ritualistic sacrifices to volcanos, instructions on how to take a bath, a dream from the perspective of a mustache saying goodbye to its family, and many more scenarios, each stranger than the last. Astonishingly, a structure begins to emerge and by the end of the film, the story explodes in cinematic ecstasy with all the stories being told simultaneously with rapid fire cutting between all the interwoven narratives. People in the mood for a boy meets girl story will obviously be bewildered, but in my opinion this movie ranks alongside Maddin’s best work which from my totally subjective view is Careful (1992), The Heart of the World (2000), Cowards Bend the Knee or the Blue Hands (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters (2006) and My Winnipeg (2007).


From right to left, Production Designer Galen Johnson, co-director Evan Johnson, Director Guy Maddin, moderator (whose name I did not catch).

The best part of tonight was getting to hear the man himself, Guy Maddin, talk at length about the film and the co-director with whom he worked, Evan Johnson. Evan and his brother Galen, who served as production designer, had never worked on a movie before, a tactic Maddin occasionally uses to ensure whatever creative advice he is hearing is not stale from other productions. They talked him into shooting the film 100% digitally, new territory for Maddin. Maddin typically uses a dirty 16mm camera, one that scratches the film, lets in accidental light and has nose grease on the lens because he loves the unusual effects and happy accidents the camera allows to happen organically. Fans of this unique approach do not need to worry. All of Maddin’s signature visual flourishes are present in The Forbidden Room in abundance, only the method for creating them has changed. I mustered up the courage to ask Maddin a question during the Q&A and asked if there were any lost films from the 1920s and 30s that he hoped would never be found. As a man who has fetishized so many famous lost films, surely his imagination would have already built a film in his head to be far better than the genuine article could ever be. He laughed and told us that he had planned on adding the only color film with the Three Stooges to The Forbidden Room but that it was ‘unfortunately’ discovered shortly before filming began. For a brief time, he wanted no classic lost films to be rediscovered, but once filming was over, he resumed his usual position of being haunted by all the great films we will never see. After the Q&A I had the privilege of shaking his hand and telling him much I’ve admired his work over the years and then I biked my way home with a big giddy grin on my face like I had been at an all-night orgy in 1930s Hollywood with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. It is not everyday that a film freak gets to meet his filmmaking heroes so like I said at the opening, any chance of actually writing a coherent review for this film has been lost. That said, if you love Guy Maddin like I do, you are in for an incredible moviegoing experience.

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