Through the ornate fonts, tints, intertitles, scores, acting techniques, and camera tricks that have made his "directed by" credit the ultimate redundancy, Guy Maddin demonstrates in The Forbidden Room that he has forgotten more about silent movies and early talkies than almost anyone else will ever know. And it's the forgetting part that's key: His best work seems to arise from a state of half-consciousness, like the waking dreams of a cinephile who's nodded off in front of some odd obscurity and continued the narrative in an addled brain. It's not quite right to think of Maddin as a pastiche artist; he's more like an alchemist, running century-old influences through a processing bath of lust, terror, psychodrama, and delightfully eccentric jokes.
The Forbidden Room isn't the best film Maddin has ever made — I prefer the headlong rush of Cowards Bend the Knee or the distilled melodrama of his six-minute short "The Heart of the World" — but it's without question his most film. At a shade over two hours (trimmed by ten minutes from Sundance), it's his longest feature by a comfortable margin and perhaps his busiest, with a nesting-doll structure that tucks stories within stories within stories, like a hypnotist drawing his patient ever deeper into the subconscious. The experience is two-thirds thrilling to one-third enervating, a winning ratio for what's essentially a tightly curated anthology film.
The origins of The Forbidden Room feed into this idea of half-forgotten cinema, spinning out from Maddin's interactive "Seances" project, which unearthed lost films from the silent era by rewriting them and shooting them live, sometimes with little more than a logline or a title for inspiration. (Some of those titles and phrases, like "The Ordeals of a Saplingjack" or "Skeletal Insurance Defrauders," sound like unreleased Guided by Voices tracks.) Maddin and his fellow screenwriters, Evan Johnson (who also gets a co-director credit) and Robert Kotyk, start on a doomed submarine and plunge into various rabbit-holes — and rabbit-holes within rabbit-holes — from there. Just so long as they stay tethered to the story that came before, they can hoist themselves out of narrative dead-ends.
Maddin establishes a proper anchor in the shake-and-bake suspense of the S.S. Plunger, where doom awaits a group of men in the Explosives Room. They remain paralyzed as a 200-pound block of depressurized blasting jelly melts before them: If they stay at the bottom of the ocean much longer, they'll run out of oxygen, but if they surface, they'll lose the water pressure that's been keeping the blasting jelly from blowing the sub to smithereens. In the meantime, there's flapjacks, always flapjacks. Why flapjacks? Because the oxygen within their air pockets will keep the men alive twice as long. And yet somehow, a total stranger comes tumbling through the shaft, covered in freshwater. Turns out he's a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) with a story to tell about rescuing a woman (Clara Furey) from the Red Wolves, a cave-dwelling clan whose initiation rituals include finger-snapping, offal-piling, and bladder-slapper. And she has a story, too, involving jungle vampires known as the "Aswang."
And so on. The Forbidden Room will often go several stories down before coming back up for air, though Maddin's digressions don't quite have the orderly structure his nesting-doll conceit might suggest. Sometimes all it takes is a newspaper headline ("Motorcycle Accident Injures Woman") to whisk Maddin off in a new direction — one of rival bone surgeons, Woman Skeletons, poison leotards, and "an insurance office like no other." Or a volcano that "dreams its molten dreams." Or a hypnosis session that leads a patient to literally meet (and shoot) her inner child. These developments can be diagrammed, no doubt, but Maddin isn't the type to buff out the rough edges. He'd rather follow his impulses than honor a blueprint.
Despite all their interconnectedness, the multiple stories in The Forbidden Room still have to ramp up and work as separate units, and it's here that the film occasionally lags and lurches. But Maddin doesn't dawdle on any for long, not when there's a plum role for Udo Kier's mustache waiting just around the corner. Adding splashes of color for the first time, Maddin accommodates his narrative embellishments with a broader, more arresting visual palette that brightens as the emotions intensify. When it finally comes time to consult "The Book of Climaxes," he lands the montage of a lifetime, but the scope of The Forbidden Room hasn't blunted his zest for the impish and trivial. Want to know where the expression, "Hoo! It's like a Turkish bath in here!" comes from? This must be the place.
The Forbidden Room
Starring Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Céline Bonnier, Louis Negin, Karine Vanasse, Caroline Dhavernas, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, and Charlotte Rampling. Written and directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson. Opens Friday, December 4, at Lake Worth Playhouse (713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth; 561-586-6169; lakeworthplayhouse.org).