Guy Maddin’s silliest and (relatively speaking) starriest feature since “The Saddest Music in the World,” “The Forbidden Room” looks set to gain his widest audience since that 2003 opus as well. It’s not necessarily one of his best, however, as this project originally conceived for the internet still plays as the series of disconnected pranks and whimsies it began as, refusing to coalesce into any focused whole. As with “Music,” those hitherto unacquainted with the helmer’s unique sensibility should have no trouble getting the joke. But it’s also a repetitious, rather formless jest that will wear out its welcome for many viewers long before jerking to a halt at the two-hour mark. It opens its U.S. theatrical run on Oct. 7, and should slightly expand on Maddin’s prior niche b.o. in friendly arthouse markets.
“Room” is an offshoot of “Seances,” an interactive online menu of short films imagined from the titles of various lost silent-era features, shot with separate (but sometimes overlapping) casts in Montreal and Paris. Bringing in other writers (including Evan Johnson, initially hired as a researcher but eventually credited as co-director) led to a total of 17 “principal” narratives. Some are recurrently woven into the film’s crazy quilt, others feature as stand-alone major panels; a few more are mere fragments, adding to the sense of a chaotic exquisite-corpse story war held together by the thinnest, most tongue-in-cheek pretexts.
Among the threads: A lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) searches for the ingenue (Clara Furey) who’s been kidnapped by a pack of wolf-men, but who may be an aswang (vampire) herself; a submarine’s crew lie stuck at the bottom of the sea, nervously waiting for explosives on board to spontaneously combust; an acquisitive man (Mathieu Amalric) has the bright idea of re-gifting some of his myriad possessions on the occasion of his wife’s birthday, though that last-minute solution brings disaster; an escaped maniac becomes a Baron’s gardener; etc., etc.
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There are amnesiac flower girls, maidens sacrificed to volcano gods, a stolen squid, mustaches of the living dead, and a “non-fiction” strand in which a stilted instructor (Louis Negin) instructs us on “How To Take a Bath,” the title of an actual (lost) 1937 educational short by exploitation producer Dwain Esper (“Marihuana,” “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband”).
This nonsensical labyrinth of variously purple, archaic and absurd tales naturally incorporates numerous cineaste in-jokes. It runs the usual Maddin gamut of stylistic nods to (primarily) the late silent and early talkie periods, complete with a whopping amount of explanatory intertitles (perhaps outweighing actual spoken dialogue), artificially scratched/aged “film stock,” use of obvious miniatures, approximation of two-strip Technicolor and so forth. Even more than most of the Winnipeg auteur’s efforts, “The Forbidden Room” is a toy box for fans of film history, its illusion of a Russian-doll structure (though there’s really no innermost sanctum here, title notwithstanding) furthering a sense that every reference here leads to an even more esoteric one.
Delightful and ingenious as much of this is on a moment-to-moment basis, it becomes somewhat wearying over the long haul (though pic has been trimmed a bit since the 131-minute version that bowed at Sundance last January). While one can only admire the puzzle assembly of John Gurdebeke’s lively editing, there really is no destination or master design to be had here. “Room’s” more juvenile japes, as well as its most charmingly daft ones, would all seem more inspired if delivered in smaller doses. With his resistance to the very idea of conventional narrative coherence and resolution (beyond mocking their cliches), it’s no wonder that the most perfect film Maddin has created so far is probably 2000’s “The Heart of the World,” an epic of quasi-archival fetishism just six giddy, succinct minutes long.
Along with some familiar faces from his oeuvre and several welcome new ones necessitated by partial Quebec funding, we get appearances by actual (if reliably idiosyncratic) movie stars — some just briefly glimpsed (Charlotte Rampling), others flitting through in multiple short roles (Maria de Medeiros, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier), still more dominating their strands (Amalric). They may have barely grasped what they were supposed to be doing at the time (it’s hard to imagine just what they were given in the form of script pages), but no doubt all had fun doing it.
The same surely goes for all off-camera talent, who presumably had a field day lending each sliver of narrative its own distinct, archaic eccentricities of visual and sonic design. “The Forbidden Room” may be too much of a good thing, but there is no question that Maddin’s bag of tricks — so essentially little-changed since his feature debut with “Tales from the Gimli Hospital” nearly 30 years ago — is, indeed, something good.