A phantasmagorical epic so wild, so mad, so hilarious, it must be seen to be believed.
The Forbidden Room
Note: This is a review of an earlier cut of The Forbidden Room that screened at Sundance and Berlin. It has since been cut down by approximately ten minutes.
For Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, film isn’t just a thing people make. It’s a living thing. A universe existing right next to ours, where time and space collapse into a giant stew of celluloid and pixels. There’s no describing The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin’s latest film which he co-directed with Johnson. I can merely state facts about it, but to actually attempt to describe the experience of watching it? That’s a fool’s errand because the only way to know about The Forbidden Room is to experience it for yourself. Is it Guy Maddin’s best work to date? Probably. Is it a masterpiece? Definitely. Maddin, who’s known for having a progressive and spiritual perspective towards cinema, has made what might be the purest representation of his mindset on film to date.
How did The Forbidden Room get here? You could say it all started back at the invention of film itself (for dramatic purposes), or five years ago (for practical purposes). Maddin created an installation called Hauntings that had him researching abandoned projects by master filmmakers and re-creating scenes from these “lost” films. Eventually, Maddin’s interests turned from the figurative to the literal; he began looking (with Johnson) into real films that are forever lost, either destroyed or unintentionally abandoned. After researching these films, Maddin began remaking them, recruiting a cast of big, international arthouse names (Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, Roy Dupuis, Ariane Labed, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros and lots more) to come in and “channel” the spirits of these lost films, acting them out in a series of short film remakes. How do you remake something you haven’t seen? Watch The Forbidden Room and find out.
So what is The Forbidden Room about? Rather than go for an episodic structure, Maddin and Johnson link every story together through a nesting doll structure that goes so deep it makes a film like Inception look like a pop-up book. It all starts with an old man in a bathrobe (Louis Negin, who winds up in almost every “remake” in some sort of role) giving advice on how to take a bath. The camera then goes under the bath water, where it reveals a submarine full of trapped men. Their captain is missing, their cargo of blasting jelly can explode at any minute, and their oxygen supply is low, requiring them to suck on pancakes to try and get oxygen from the air pockets. Suddenly, a lumberjack (Dupuis) finds his way onto the submarine, and when the men ask how he got there, the film flashes back to tell his story: while chopping trees in the forest, he decides to rescue the beautiful Margot (Clara Furey) from The Red Wolves, described as “the most feared forest bandits in all of Holstein-Schleswig.” The lumberjack goes off to rescue Margot who then has a dream where she’s an amnesiac bar singer, a bar where an indescribable singer performs a song about a man (Kier) obsessed with grabbing asses, which transitions into a dreaming volcano, and then a newspaper article within the volcano’s dream, and then the inside of an x-ray of a pelvis, and then…
The amount of transitions, digressions and leveling up and down within storylines just goes on and on, to the point where trying to make heads or tails of anything loses its meaning. Everything co-exists and stands alone. High art and low art combine into one. Dreams, memories, fantasies and nightmares weave in and out of each other. Maddin and Johnson put the bulk of their efforts into the post-production process, taking the digitally shot footage and dousing it with every possible imperfection or antiquated method from both analog and digital eras: two-strip Technicolor, warped stock, burn marks, title cards, data moshing, colour dyes, and whatever else they could pull out from this cinematic stew they conjured up. And through all of this madness, Maddin and Johnson have created an exhaustive and hilarious masterwork. The sort of film where a hysterical title card like “The skull-faced man and his gang of Skeletal Insurance Defrauders” gets lost in the shuffle of the seemingly endless ideas thrown on-screen from start to end. It’s a film that has endless rewatch value because it’s impossible to remember every detail from it. It’s one of the most perfect collections of imperfections ever made. It is, quite simply, The Forbidden Room.
Originally published as part of our coverage for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.