Thoughts on The Forbidden Room

A lumberjack takes a wrong turn and is lost aboard a gelatine-endangered submarine. A tale of an aristocrat ‘plagued by bottoms’, as told by the band Sparks. Terrible bath jokes. Ritual sacrifice. A mysterious yet comforting moustache. Welcome to the distinctive vision of director Guy Maddin.

“Whatever it is you think I have done, I have done it ten times worse than you even know”

The Canadian director has an impressively odd back catalogue, which includes the barely factual autobiographical docudrama My Winnipeg, the 6-minute explosion of early Soviet cinema that is The Heart of the World, and Isabella Rossellini bedecked atop beer-filled glass legs in The Saddest Music in the World, his most ‘mainstream’ feature, through to more uncategorisable projects which veer into radio drama, opera and beyond.

Maddin’s films hark back to the look, sound and feel of early cinema, drawing on the febrile intensity, invention and high camp of the first half of the 20th century, when filmmakers from Murnau to Cocteau were working out just what could be done with the medium. And the word ‘medium’ is a key to unlocking The Forbidden Room.

“No more talking. Just breathing”

The film grew, in part, out of a series of public one-day film shoots, what Maddin refers to as ‘hauntings’ or ‘seances’, each of which attempted to recreate a lost or unrealised film by the likes of Lon Chaney Snr and Jean Vigo. There is a related online project which remixes these films in algorithmic fashion to produce a unique viewing each time (see seances.nfb.ca).

You might think that this means the film itself is a ragbag of ideas plastered together with cheap surrealism – except it’s not. It’s somehow more than the sum of its parts in the way that The Saragossa Manuscript or Tristram Shandy are more than their respective disgressive wanderings. Each episode or detour in the film seems to fall subliminally into the next. This means that following a narrative arc is futile, yet somehow it hangs together and even arrives at a climactic moment ('A climax to end all climaxes!', as the intertitles might put it).

“Dream the molten dream of justice!”

Maddin has stated, in typically mischievous fashion, that “the sleeping actor is the best actor – the poetically and psychologically truest representation of the human”. His actors often seem distracted, as if in a dream, or more worryingly, as if from your dreams. Actors known and unknown have agreed to be embroiled in this headiest of brews, including Clara Furey, Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Ariane Labed, and (of course) Udo Kier.

“A little bit off the top! A little bit off the top!”

Evan Johnson earns his co-directorship in his transformation of the very fabric of the film, bringing to bear in post-production the techniques of the experimental underground (Stan Brakhage, Carolee Schneemann) on the surface of the film, grasping at the netherworld of film’s history through viscous, magma-warped textures, conjuring a dreamscape of loss, anxiety, sex and absurdity.

At times the effect is positively psychedelic. The John Ashbery-penned sequence on bathing as narrated by the louche rake Marv (Louis Negin) functions as an entirely appropriate metaphor for the immersive visual qualities of the film, not to mention the soundtrack, which ranges from intimate whispers and radio transmissions to full-blown orchestral melodrama (as Maddin has noted, “You want people to feel washed up, panting, on some far shore”).

“Once you're done, you wanna dry yourself on a big, fluffy, Turkish towel”

As far as the DVD/Blu-ray release goes, it is a good transfer, but this is a film which yells out to be seen on the big screen (there is a 3D version, the very thought of which sends my head into a spin). So why watch it on the small (or 65”) screen? Because if you want to see how inventive, transforming unnerving and ridiculous a film can be, you must see it.

And if you don’t like it? Well, you obviously prefer a brisk shower. I won’t judge you, but Marv might.

“Have a nice day!”

Stephen Chase

Film Listings

Hosted by Samantha Holland

PALE MOON
Daihachi Yoshida, Japan, 2014
Tue 14 Feb | 6:15pm | Showroom | £8.50
An interesting option for Valentine’s Day, focusing as it does on the negative ways money influences us all. Starring Rie Miyazawa as a women who changes her life radically by taking a lover and embezzling funds to please him.
showroomworkstation.org.uk/pale-moon

SHOWROOM SHORTS
Curated by the South Yorkshire Filmmakers' Network
Tue 21 Feb | From 9pm | Showroom Bar | Free
In SYFN’s words: "Showroom Shorts rockets into February with more awesome short films for you. Comedy, animation, docs, horror: you name it."
syfn.org/events/showroom-shorts

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS
Preston Sturges, USA, 1941
Wed 22 Feb | 6:30pm | Showroom | £8.50
Ostensibly the tale of a director of escapist movies taking to the road as a hobo to learn about life, this arguably remains the most insightful satire about Hollywood ever made. Comedy starring Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea.
showroomworkstation.org.uk/sullivans-travels

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN
Robert Siodmak, USA, 1950
Tue 28 Feb | 7:30pm | Café #9, Nether Edge Road | Free
Come along and get yourself a coffee and cake to accompany the emotional craziness of this melodramatic noir starring Barbara Stanwyk on incredible form. Preceded by a short film at 7pm.
facebook.com/filmsatnumber9