With “The Forbidden Room,” Guy Maddin, co-directing with his former student Evan Johnson, has managed to out-Maddin even his usual maniacal, evocative, psychosexual, non sequitur-laden style. The film opens with a guy in a bathrobe, Marv (Louis Negin), saying we’re going to talk about how to take a bath. Then he goes into how the armpits should be soaped up first followed by genitalia, and before you know it, the camera is under the bath water and we’re looking at a toy submarine as the film transitions into the tale of four desperate crewmen on board this seemingly doomed sub, the SS Plunger. Out of nowhere a lumberjack named Cesare (Roy Dupuis) appears in the submarine and begins recounting his attempt to rescue the beautiful Margot (Clara Furey) from a band of fierce cavemen. Cesare endures trials by fire as demanding as finger snapping and offal piling to join the group, all as a cover to reach Margot, who has amnesia.
“Forbidden Room” then delves into Margot’s story and finds her singing in a nightclub before having to deal with a vampire banana. The next story finds Margot as a virgin sacrifice to a volcano (or a “valcano” as per the film’s intertitles) before getting rescued by flapper/attorney Eve (Celine Bonnier) who falls out of the sky, which then results in their lesbian tryst. When all is said and done, Maddin and Johnson go through sixteen stories, all inspired by lost films from the likes of Allan Dwan, Dwain Esper, F.W. Murnau, and Mikio Naruse.
“Forbidden Room” is incredibly packed with details, plots, and characters and after a while, it feels like a constantly shifting, half-remembered dream, but ultimately the progression of the stories themselves don’t matter. “Forbidden Room” is all about the moment-to-moment irreverent, crazy hilarity made as vivid as possible. That Maddin and Johnson can mostly sustain this for 2-hours is just an impressive feat. Not quite up to par are only two segments – one about a murderous “gardener boy” (Jacques Nolot) and one about aristocratic Thad (the great Matheiu Amalric) who lives in a giant elevator and tries to exchange places with his kind-of-dead butler (Udo Kier). The latter does sound better on paper than actually experienced.
Maddin’s style is applying absurdist humor to postmodern pastiche and he frequently spoofs other styles from German Expressionism to Soviet montage. With “Forbidden Room,” the closest stylistic analogue is probably Kenneth Anger with dashes of Fritz Lang, David Lynch, F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, and Alejandro Jodorowsky all in the mix. The story within a story within a story ad infinitum structure is similar to Wojciech Has’ “The Sarragossa Manuscript.”
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Guy Maddin depends on sound editing and sound mixing to convey the experience of his films. Just listening to the sounds of “Forbidden Room” alone would be tremendously evocative. Snippets of Brahms, Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky help to enhance the mood-setting in the film. This is not to give short shrift to the looks of Maddin’s films, which are striking and startling and have powerful textures, both in visual terms – they’re often scratched and grainy with blurring colors – and in temporal terms – they’re filled with rapid cuts and jump cuts. Additionally, Maddin is drawn to casting actors with iconic faces, faces that can embody youth or age, beauty or hideousness, fleshy or gaunt, elegant or rugged.
A list of the film’s highlights could go on and on but include the “derriere” song, stone shoes, poison leotards, the squid thief (Romano Orzari), Xiao (Eric Robidoux) resetting the bones of Gong (Caroline Dhavernas), Florence and her inner child (Karine Vanasse and Sienna Mazzone, respectively), the Janus bust that, Jekyll and Hyde-like, turns Warren (Andreas Apergis) into Lug-Lug, and finally “The Book of Climaxes” which gives us snippets of stories we’ve seen and many stories we wish we had seen. This last bit shows just how much more Maddin and Johnson have in them even as “Forbidden Room” has been filled to the brim.