Somewhere Between Berlin and Bogota

The Forbidden Room, 2014, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

Fifty minutes into The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin’s magical 128-minute long work-in-progress, we are on a train compartment located somewhere between Berlin and Bogota, looking at a pretty young women reading a magazine. Her name is Florence LaBadie and she is played by Quebec’s Karine Vanasse. LaBadie, who died in 1917, was an American actress famous during the era of silent film.

The circumstances by which we arrived on the train are complicated. They are directly connected to looking at a pelvic x-ray of a motorcycle-riding adventureress named Gong, who has ended up in hospital, being treated by the anchorite brother of a bone specialist who had been waiting in a park to propose to Gong, when he was kidnapped by a trio of female insurance defrauders dressed in skeletal leotards. The doctor’s name is Deng and he remains loyal until toxins from the women’s garments are transferred to the leotard in which they have dressed him and his resistance breaks down. The inter-titles flash the same word in ever growing size: “BONES,” “BONES” “BONES.” Deng is remembering the 47 broken ones he fixed on Gong’s body prior to his abduction.

The film’s narrative is like an absurd version of the old spiritual “Dem Bones,” except that in this case the pelvic bone is connected to the head bone with no evident anatomical bridging in between. The x-ray morphs into railway tracks and we are on the Deutsch-Kolumbianisch Express, where Florence is joined by Dr. Deane the “train psychiater,” who seduces her, after which he introduces her stolen inner child, whom she shoots on the spot. This perilous train journey ends when it cuts back to the x-ray of Gong’s body, the bones of which are re-broken and reconnected by Xiao, Deng’s brother, a doctor who lives as a hermit in a mountain monastery. This particular story, like the film in general, loops back on itself; same patient, same problem, same diagnosis, different physician. The motorcycle and train stories and their discursive propulsion are perfect examples of how the larger narrative of The Forbidden Room operates: a web of 16 separate stories connected in unpredictable ways. All of them are re-imaginings of films that were lost, partially made or never made; six are American, with one each from Australia, the USSR, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, China, Denmark, Quebec and Hungary. The title is borrowed from a film directed by Allan Dwan in the USA in 1914. It was 20 minutes long and included Lon Chaney in its cast. While we know little about it, we do know that it was definitely not set in a submarine filled with pressurized blasting jelly about to explode, run by a missing captain and visited by a confused lumberjack, which is where the remake begins.

Maddin has always been an inspired rummager in the basements of film history; he alters Yeats’s lines to read “I must go down where all the film ladders start / in that foul rag and bone shop of the art.” In an already remarkable directorial career, the method of storytelling he uses in The Forbidden Room marries an obsession with the history of film and a willing embrace of an inescapably layered narrative technique. He counts among his favourite films The Locket, a 1947 noirish thriller directed by John Brahm that utilizes flashbacks and interconnected narratives in compelling ways. To further complicate the storytelling in The Forbidden Room, Maddin has adapted the narrative technique of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933), the French poet and novelist who has had a significant influence on a number of 20th-century writers and artists, including the Surrealists, Marcel Duchamp, Alain Robbe- Grillet, Michel Foucault and the New York School of Poets. From that group, it was John Ashbery who became a devotee of Roussel (he went to Paris to study French so that he could translate his works into English). Roussel’s writing is based on a technique that allows ideas of association to become generative, while the connections between them can remain tangential. Maddin adopts a practical variation of this intersecting narrative technique; he chooses a cluster of central stories that hold together the film’s layered nature.

The first of these narrative anchors is How to Take a Bath, a remake of a lost American film directed by Dwain Esper in 1937. The version we hear is a monologue written by Ashbery and delivered by Marv, acted in a marvelously bad way by Louis Negin. It is the first of five roles he will play in the film, including a lamp trimmer on the submarine named SS Plunger (the film has its share of potty humour). He is also Mars, a talent agent and night club potentate; the father of a violated daughter; and an umbraged sacrificial organizer on an island who petitions the volcano to “dream the molten dream of justice.” He’s like an event planner overseeing an especially kinky island holiday. There’s some girl-on-girl stuff between Eve de Merincourt, a Lost Generation attorney played by Céline Bonnier who, “taking wing on a whim,” parachutes onto the island, and Margot, a femme fatale who begins the film as a kidnapped victim before changing into a killer vampire with some memorable peristaltic body moves, an amnesiac night club chanteuse, and the daughter of the missing captain on the SS Plunger. The scene where the two women wake up on the jungle floor, all lacy and lusty, is fabulously dishabille. That Eve will be captured by the natives and accused of murder and “squid theft,” a crime punishable by death, is a narrative twist too convoluted to explain, although it is safe to say that it is no more labyrinthine than the cornersturned by any of the characters in the film. The cast is huge and includes well-known actors like Charlotte Rampling, Udo Keir and Geraldine Chaplin and then a clutch of less recognizable but excellent actors. The performances by Clara Furey as Margot and Roy Dupuis as Cesare, the leader of the Sapling Jacks, are especially strong, as is the frenetic Thad, the weird collector turned murderer played by Mathieu Amalric.

Maddin has his entire cast working in wildly unpredictable stories. The shifts from one narrative to another are ingenious and often hilarious (the film is terrifically funny throughout). A story can emerge out of the circling movement of a draining bathtub, or from a pair of Margot’s boyfriends who have been transformed into blackened Aswang banana figures, squatting on the edge of her bed. He also gives Negin the role of a master narrator who can both make connections between stories and call up new ones, even while playing a character already inside a story in the process of unfolding. In the film, time is rhizomatic and constantly shifting; in the same way, space gets pried open and crammed full with new shapes.

Everything said or seen in one sequence can move in a complicating direction. Maddin finds ways to layer inside the layering. The story of Warren, an inexperienced envoy turned memoir-composing diplomat, is indicative. (He is wonderfully played by Andreas Apergis). His sad tale begins with a quote from James 1:8 warning us that “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” In an antique shop, Warren buys an emblem of doubleness: a Janus bust he intends to give as a gift to his fiancée, Jane Lanyon, played by Sophie Desmarais. The story is based on Der Januskopf, a lost film made by FW Murnau in Germany in 1920. Warren’s unhealthy obsession with the bust convulses him into the monster Lug-Lug, under whose influence he assaults his fiancée, turning her into a lost Ophelia figure sewing non-existent fragments in her “ravaged bedchamber.” To assuage his guilt, Warren determines to sell the bust at a night auction, only to find his own double bidding against him. As a tribute to Murnau, when Lug-Lug stalks his doppelganger, he looks like Nosferatu and has a growl worthy of a werewolf.

The Forbidden Room is replete with specific film duplications, including Maddin’s own. A bizarre story called The Strength of a Moustache, based on a 1931 Japanese film by Mikio Naruse, plays out a theme that Maddin himself dealt with in The Dead Father, his first film in 1986. He also has Maria de Madeiros, who was an amnesiac nymphomaniac in The Saddest Music in the World (2003), playing a blind mother who obscenely strokes the fake moustache worn by her young son, himself an unwilling surrogate for his own dead father. These quotations are less about self-indulgence than a high degree of self-conscious film-indulgence. Maddin can’t make a film move without an awareness of all the cinematic moves that have been made before him.

The Forbidden Room is visually ravishing. It alternates between black and white and colour, just as the sound shifts from silent inter-titles to full-on sound. The snowy forest where Cesare and his lumberjack accomplices look for the kidnapped Margot is wistfully beautiful; the scene where he finds Margot, as the Captain’s daughter, in the belly of the submarine, is lushly romantic; and the laudanum scenes in The Ostler’s Mother, Maddin’s version of The Dream Woman, a lost film from 1914 directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, move from drug-induced confusion to mesmerizing seduction. But it’s in “The Book of Climaxes” where the most dazzling visual look is produced. The sequence, a virtuoso compilation of action scenes, is a brilliant way to end what could have been an unendable film. Maddin chooses additional sections from stories that are in the film and then short sequences of 14 films that are not; these cameo appearances create an intense sense of rhythm. Many of the scenes in the first part of “The Book of Climaxes” show figures fighting and falling, and the overall effect is one of anxious urgency. Then the action scenes give way to moments of delicate romance where, one after another, pairs of actors engage in all manner of kissing. In this sequence, and throughout the film, the editing by John Gurdebeke is superlative. The Forbidden Room is the best looking of any of Maddin’s films, and credit for that goes to his collaborators, especially Galen Johnson, who designed the copious inter-titles throughout, the credits at the end, and the movie title screens at the beginning. They are themselves a fast-paced walk through the history of filmic graphic design. Together with the research and writing of Robert Kotyk and the co-direction of Evan Johnson, Maddin has put together a superb group of filmophiles.

Let me end by going to the beginning. I’m encouraged in this temporal looping by Bent, the murderous gardener who gives as the mystery line in his job interview, “Nothing is ever the past.” As Bent’s world goes, so goes Guy Maddin’s. No film is past but only material for present invention. The epigraph for The Forbidden Room, then, becomes gospel for the attitude that Maddin encourages all film disciples to adopt. He takes instruction from John 6:12 where he is told to “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” Seen through this lens, The Forbidden Room, all about recovery and gain, is a brilliant gathering. Still in its making, it is already his finest and most adventuresome film yet. ❚