There hasn’t been a haunted house in the history of movies quite like the one in “Keyhole,” Guy Maddin’s dark, demented and faintly disappointing ghost story. Foregoing his usual mix of cheeky self-portrait and silent-movie pastiche, the one-of-a-kind Canadian filmmaker offers a hallucinatory romp through eerie new corridors of his imagination, teeming with Homeric allusions, spirits of cinema past and a creaky closetful of sexual kinks. But Maddin’s singular humor and fabulous black-and-white mise-en-scene can’t sustain this fever dream beyond its initial fascination, making for an intriguing transitional work unlikely to broaden his audience in niche release.
The press notes for “Keyhole” describe it as Maddin’s first attempt at “pure narrative filmmaking,” a designation no more trustworthy than the film’s gangster protagonist or his tenuous grip on reality. A cinematic puzzle box with no rational solution, this head-spinning fantasia twists and doubles back on itself in a manner far trickier to follow than in such previous Maddin efforts as “My Winnipeg” and “Cowards Bend the Knee.” And if it lacks those films’ overt autobiographical touches and silent-era flourishes, it’s no less inventive or surreal in its engagement with the iconography of black-and-white movies.
Starting with a gangster-in-a-haunted-house template, Maddin and co-scribe Georges Toles could have pushed this in the direction of, say, the 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy “Hold That Ghost.” Instead, they add another layer by drawing loosely on a pair of literary sources: Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” and “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 study of the psychological impact produced by one’s domestic environs.
From these varied inspirations springs the exceedingly odd tale of Ulysses Pick (Patric), a hardened 1930s crook who returns home after a lengthy absence and begins a strange, protracted journey through his rotting mausoleum of a house in search of his estranged wife, Hyacinth (Maddin muse Isabella Rossellini). Gravely ill, Hyacinth has locked herself away in her bedroom, from which her elderly father (Louis Negin) narrates much of the action, stark naked and in chains.
When Ulysses makes his shadowy first appearance, he has not only his fellow criminals but also two teenagers in tow: bound-and-gagged Manners (David Wontner), who turns out to be Ulysses’ son; and sopping-wet Denny (Brooke Palsson), a drowning victim who somehow still walks, talks and breathes.
Indeed, viewers may have trouble keeping track of which characters are alive and which ones are dead, a distinction Maddin doesn’t seem to consider especially significant to begin with. Jump-cutting and dissolving convulsively from one handheld shot to the next, editor John Gurdebeke whips together the denizens of this highly dysfunctional home so that past blurs into present and dream into waking reality.
Over a soundtrack that never stops belching up atmospheric music or droning, dissonant noises apparently generated by the house itself, a voice continually booms, “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” This urgent refrain is crucial to understanding “Keyhole” as a memory piece, predicated on Bachelard’s notion that every individual sees his or her home as a precious repository of emotions and memories.
As each room and secret passage brings Ulysses closer to Hyacinth, he’s forced to confront demons of a psychosexual nature, from an inexplicably riveting scene in which Manners, Denny and Hyacinth climb into a bathtub to a phallic wall fixture that occasions perhaps the first time a movie character has uttered the sentence, “The penis is dusty.” Ulysses’ habit of peering through keyholes, which recall the naughty peepholes of “Cowards Bend the Knee,” underscores the voyeuristic feel of a film not lacking in nudity.
Yet as agreeably unhinged as much of “Keyhole” is, the filmmaker doesn’t seem to be as firmly in his creative groove as he has in his best work. Without the grounding of personal history, Maddin’s flights of fancy here feel too abstruse to grasp fully. Without his masterful manipulation of silent filmmaking techniques, the convoluted storytelling begins to seem repetitive and his more out-there gags like shock tactics.
Though not exactly James Cagney, Patric carries the picture effectively enough, conveying the ruthless determination that keeps Ulysses on his psychological odyssey. Rossellini fits snugly into Maddin’s universe as always, and the handsome Wontner becomes an increasingly compelling presence in a largely wordless role.
D.p. Benjamin Kasulke’s monochrome lensing (achieved with 5D cameras rather than the usual Super 8 or Super 16) is rich in detail yet still retains the evocative, cloudy look of Maddin’s earlier pictures. A few garish splashes of color creep into brief scene transitions, perhaps foreshadowing the director’s next project, which will reportedly be entirely in color; it suggests Maddin may yet reinvent himself as an artist, even if this particular entry implies a partial metamorphosis at best.