Film of the week: The Forbidden Room

Guy Maddin plays pulp-poetic Exquisite Corpse with the ghosts of cinema lost.

Tony Rayns
Updated:

Writing a synopsis of The Forbidden Room (see the print version of this review in our January 2016 issue) is a fool’s game. The film is so crammed with characters and incidents that any 250-word synopsis has to leave out a lot. For example, there was no space here to mention the storyline about the Janus bust and the doppelganger who turns into the demonic Lug Lug, or to note Charlotte Rampling’s fleeting cameos as ‘The Ostler’s Mother’, much less the boy soldiers, the Birthday Penthouse or the squid theft. But the real reason that writing a synopsis is silly is that the film’s relentless profusion is its whole point.

The Forbidden Room is a seemingly non-stop barrage of story fragments, occasionally ‘nested’, as in The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), more often colliding or morphing into each other. Some images look like scratched and buckled 35mm, others use digital manipulation to simulate the effect of nitrate decay and damage or to create swirling montages within the frame.

Captions and title-cards sometimes appear in different typefaces in quick succession, as if variant print sources have been spliced together; a couple of captions and one roller-title are in Spanish. Some dialogue is spoken, but other lines appear as intertitles; a few episodes have both spoken dialogue and intertitles, like some part-talkies of the late 1920s. In one episode, occidental characters have anomalous Chinese names, spelt in modern pinyin transliterations. Everything from the melodramatic acting styles to the muted colours (they’re deliberately redolent of tinted monochrome and early two-strip Technicolor) is designed to evoke genre conventions of the silent era and ‘programme-picture’ talkies of the 1930s.

Batman Maddin and his new boy wonder Evan Johnson, credited as co-writers and co-directors, have discussed the film’s weird genesis in interviews, most comprehensively in the spring 2015 issue (#62) of the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope. (The core of the backstory is also laid out in the press notes, but since most reviewers won’t bother to relay it to their readers, Maddin must be intensely relaxed about viewers approaching the film as a thrill-ride experience.)

In brief, the project has its roots in a 2010 commission to produce a series of installations for the opening of the Lightbox in Toronto. The 11 looped short films were called Hauntings and each was at least notionally inspired by some lost film of the 20s or 30s. Maddin was working on his own Keyhole at the time, so enlisted his former student Johnson (then working in a carpet-cleaning-fluid factory) to supervise the project, and hired “a bunch of talented young filmmakers I’d met on my travels” to shoot the actual films.

In 2012, Hauntings evolved into a new project to shoot more such ‘tributes’ to lost films in galleries in Paris and Montreal, where audiences were invited to watch the proceedings. This time Maddin directed them himself and promoted Johnson to the role of co-director. Maddin settled on the title Seances for the new shorts; he plans to publish them on an interactive website in 2016.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The initial filming for The Forbidden Room took place alongside Seances, but Maddin claims that this material was always distinct from the shorts and intended specifically for the cinema, not the internet. But he also says that he was dispirited by the raw video footage (“looking through the viewfinder when shooting this and seeing some butt-ugly video, it was hard to get my attitude up”) and persevered only on Johnson’s assurance that the material could be tweaked in post-production.

Tweaked it certainly was: there is hardly a single shot in the whole two hours (or in the 130-minute version screened in Berlin and Hong Kong festivals) which hasn’t been digitally transformed. Johnson won’t divulge exactly how he engineered the impressive image-morphing effects (“the technique is similar to data-moshing… it’s an Adobe After Effects series of techniques that I accidentally put together”), but they power a visual phantasmagoria with a built-in propulsive energy.

There were reportedly mass walkouts at the Sundance premiere last January, so clearly not everyone is seduced. But anyone who’s enjoyed a Guy Maddin film before will take it in their stride and find much to like, even if the pleasure is inextricable from the pain of unyielding surface ‘noise’ and the Maddin-ing aesthetic which remains convinced that schlock-melodrama clichés contain germs of beauty and psychological truth.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The film takes its title from a lost Allan Dwan three-reeler of 1914 (a madwoman-locked-in-the-attic story; Lon Chaney was in a supporting role) and bases its main story fragments on the titles of a wide range of other lost movies, from Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920, a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story) and Naruse’s The Strength of a Moustache (Hige no Chikara, 1931) to long-forgotten Hollywood genre films and early talkie serials. The framing material, in which Maddin regular Louis Negin performs a monologue written by the poet John Ashbery on bath-time etiquette, was suggested by a lost 1937 short by Dwain Esper, How to Take a Bath. (Esper’s original featured two contrasted women; this features an unprepossessing male hippie.)

But the disparate sources of inspiration are actually far less varied than you might expect, since everything is mulched down into the flow of treated images and dramatic clichés: it’s all intentionally much of a muchness. The Paris surrealists were the first to champion ‘pulp poetry’, perceiving that pop entertainments sometimes climbed to heights of delirium, and Maddin follows their example – but without their anti-bourgeois edge. He obliquely references Buñuel’s first two films (the absurd title-card “17 months later” could have come from Un chien andalou and the patently symbolic “Minister of the Interior” has strayed in from L’Age d’or), but he shies away from Buñuel’s Sadean blasphemy. His Christ-figure is Roy Dupuis’s heroic Cesare, who spends much of the movie trying to rescue Clara Furey’s amnesiac damsel in distress and ultimately starts summoning disciples to help him: more Sunday school than devil in disguise.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

To their credit, though, Maddin and Johnson deny us the easy satisfaction of stories with proper endings and dramatic closure. They may be conjuring vanished films back into life, and lamenting the fragility and transience of the medium that sired them, but they’re also into the trashiness of trash culture: the shoddiness of B-movie effects, overripe ham performances and the kind of tacky glamour that floated Jack Smith’s boat when he made Flaming Creatures (1963).

Maddin has long been a brilliant pasticheur of antique film language (the short Heart of the World, 2000, a feverish tribute to Soviet-style montage, remains his masterpiece), but his sense of absurdity always trumps everything else. So the many storylines in The Forbidden Room are all left unresolved, stripped of their emotional punchlines. Instead, towards the end, a Book of Climaxes is proffered, ushering in a mini-portmanteau of pyrotechnic endings: a collision of airships, an island shaped like a human brain exploding and so on. Maybe this was the volume left on the cutting-room floor of Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), another grandstanding piece of digitally engineered cinema? After that, the closing scenes – including the long-delayed entry into the forbidden room, the captain’s cabin on a stricken submarine – are knowingly bathetic and inconsequential.

As always in Maddin films, the presiding spirit is camp and crypto-gay, a colouring underlined by the presence of such actors as Udo Kier. The storylines, however, emphasise loss, bereavement, amnesia and injury, echoing the fate of the original lost films themselves. The melodramatic fragments here have little or no emotional kick, but the film as a whole delivers a febrile melancholia with gusto.

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