The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs," the latest from iconoclastic Canuck filmmaker Guy Maddin, is a demanding mixture of Gothic romance, Euro expressionism and Shakespearean fancy. A yarn about the cruelty of love, the picture is an eerie visual reverie with an often daunting narrative. The film won't enlarge the small circle who have embraced Maddin's earlier "Tales From the Gimli Hospital" and "Careful"; theatrical prospects are confined to a niche of a niche audience, both domestically and abroad, with limited spinoff in video and pay cable. The yarn centers on Peter Glahn (uncredited Nigel Whitmey), a former political prisoner who is returning to the mythical Mandragora, where the sun never sets. Aboard ship, he encounters the mysterious Julianna Kossel (Pascale Bussieres), who promptly vanishes, but not before captivating his heart.
Ashore, he goes to the family ostrich farm run by his sister Amelia (Shelley Duvall). What slowly emerges is a complex set of passionate connections. Amelia is heartsick for the vain and duplicitous Dr. Solti (R.H. Thompson), who has a manipulative hold on both Zephyr (Alice Krige), the widow of a fisherman, and Julianna. But Solti’s true love is a recently discovered statue of Venus with strange powers and an apparent desire for Zephyr. The lethal unraveling finds Amelia taking out her frustration on her handyman (Frank Gorshin) and the rest killed, spurned or gone mad.
Once again Maddin sets his tale in an unspecified bygone time and creates a hallucinatory environment on soundstages. The elements of magic and confinement recall “The Tempest,” but George Toles’ script fails to connect the mythic and the temporal, producing an ultimately unsatisfying effort.
Whitmey, who removed his name from the picture when he was re-dubbed by another actor, is nonetheless effective as a cipher amid the action. The picture also sports effective turns by Krige, Thompson and especially Bussieres, while Duvall is overly shrill as Amelia. Overall, Maddin’s first effort with seasoned performers is extremely promising, and he continues to grow as a visual craftsman. But he’s in need of better material to develop the unique film voice his past films promised.