I've never been sure what to make of Canadian director Guy Maddin, who is obsessed with films from the silent era, and has paid homage to them many times in his surreal, often borderline experimental films. The last feature I saw of his was 2012's "Keyhole," a black and white fever dream wrought in noir tropes and 1930s imagery. It was terribly gloomy and not really to my tastes, but I respected it for its considerable craft. Now, four years later, Maddin is back with "The Forbidden Room," which is something completely different, and bloody amazing.
First, "The Forbidden Room" is designed to resemble lost silent era films, complete with warped, degrading film stock and title cards. You could easily mistake still frames as having actually come from the 1920s, as Maddin carefully reproduces the old haphazard production values and rudimentary filming techniques with great faithfulness. The style and sensibility is spot on, from the costuming to the color tinting, even though Maddin breaks several of his own rules by including anachronistic modern references and several scenes with sound - including musical numbers! But even better, all this is put in the service of telling a series of absolutely crazy, absurd comic stories stuffed into one another like a demented Russian nesting doll of B-movie madness.
Let's start with the crew of a doomed submarine trying to conserve air by eating flapjacks (they have air pockets). Or how about the lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) trying to save his girlfriend (Clara Furey) from bandits that dress up like wolves? Or the good doctor (Paul Ahmarani) who has been stolen away from his lover (Caroline Dhavernas) by a gang of women skeletons in the employ of insurance defrauders? Or the man (Mathieu Almaric) who lives in an elevator, desperately trying to find his wife a birthday gift? Or the moustache who sets out to comfort the family of his deceased owner? Or the island natives preparing a sacrifice to an angry volcano? Guy Maddin fans will be happy to know that the beloved Louis Negrin and Udo Kier play several roles apiece, and keep popping up in different stories. Kier stars in the film's best sequence, a musical interlude (sung by 80s New Wave group Sparks) that tells the woeful tale of a man obsessed with women's derrieres. Negrin gets the framing sequence, where he instructs audience members on how to take a bath.
"The Forbidden Room" is actually an offshoot of Guy Maddin's "Seances" video installation project, which resurrected and reimagined thirty lost or never-made silent films and shorts. Maddin claims that they mostly only had the titles to work off of, like "The Red Wolves," "The Strength of a Moustache" and "Women Skeletons." The results are absolutely nuts, but delightfully so. Maddin and his collaborators construct these stories out of all the goofy, outdated bits of melodrama and horror and comedic farce that audiences a century ago might have been able to take at face value, but are practically nonsense today. You could compare it to something like Tarantino and Rodriguez's "Grindhouse" exploitation homages, except "The Forbidden Room" is so much better conceived and executed. I love how cheerfully anarchic and weird the stories are, frequently referencing sexual and psychological obsessions of the day. I love the humorous use of the title cards (SQUID THEFT!) and ancient special effects. The film runs 130 minutes, but it seems to go by in no time at all.
Of course, I must caution that this is not an experience for everyone, or really most moviegoers. I imagine the average cinefile who isn't familiar with silent films or Guy Maddin wandering into "The Forbidden Room" unawares and becoming confused, then enraged. The screening at Sundance last year had walkouts. But if you're in on the joke and any kind of fan of older films, "The Forbidden Room" is something that you may appreciate. I knew what I was getting into, fortunately, and found it easy to enjoy watching the absurdities heap upon absurdities. I think I've finally gotten on the same wavelength as Guy Maddin, and understand his sense of humor. I think it may be time to go back and rewatch some of his older films with the tongue-in-cheek homages of "The Forbidden Room" in mind.