“Squid Theft!” “Bones! Bones! Bones!” “Forced to wear a leotard!”
If you want to make a film critic smile, drop one of the intertitles to Guy Maddin’s phantasmagoric last film “The Forbidden Room” in the middle of a conversation. Maddin’s film, now out on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is a cinephiliac’s dream and nightmare, as Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson took a treasure trove of plots from lost and never-made films and created giddy, eerie Russian nesting dolls of stories out of them.
Maddin is a Canadian director who works out his obsessions using the language of classic cinema; his autobiographical documentary “My Winnipeg” dreamed of his wintry Manitoba hometown as a hotbed of conspiracies and oddities. “Forbidden Room” feels a little less personal because of its source material, but in execution it may be the Maddin-est Maddin yet.
After a phantasmagorical opening credits sequence which twists the fonts from a host of classic movies, “Forbidden Room” starts out as an instructional film about taking a bath. (Stay with me here.) Then we go down the drain and into a submarine drama where four sailors are eating pancakes to take advantage of the air bubbles in the batter.
Then a lumberjack suddenly shows up on the submarine, transported from a forest where he’s been trying to rescue his true love, kidnapped by a gang who hums a deadly tune. Then his true love falls asleep, and in her dream she’s in a nightclub deep in the jungle being menaced by a vampire banana.
his is like the first 15 minutes of the movie.
Plots nestle inside each other — one film is found projected inside an X-ray from another — telescoping inward to a watery image of Charlotte Rampling, and then telescoping back out again. It may sound highbrow or artsy, but Maddin’s sensibility is delightfully nutty and accessible, using and bending the tropes of classic cinema. In fact, the ending of the film is a series of climaxes from never-made movies, a cascade of dirigible crashes and fistfights and spectacular deaths and first kisses.
“Forbidden Room” is on Netflix, but I really recommend the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray for its wonderfully arch audio commentary featuring Maddin and Johnson. Much of their chat is just wry silliness — Maddin insists that the film is the result of a long-running rivalry between him and “Inception” director Christopher Nolan, and of one speech that seems to go on and on, to the discomfort of even the other characters, Maddin insists “It just didn’t seem too long enough.”
But the commentary also provides some valuable insight into the structure of the film, of its concentric circles of story, and the occasional thematic rhymes that pop up almost by accident. The process of making the film itself is fascinating — Maddin and Jackson would shoot the scenes often in public at museums in Montreal and Paris, letting natural noise filter in (which is why you can hear a snatch of Aerosmith in one scene). The result is part art project, part film, part ongoing online haunting — Maddin says much more of the scenes will be scene on his “Seances” website.
Maybe this context should be held back for a second or third viewing, and the audience should just dive in, unaware, into Maddin and Jackson’s warm bath of ectoplasmic cinematic wonders. Maddin himself even suggests that he understands “The Forbidden Room” is a lot to absorb as a whole, and hopes audiences will “dip in” to sample bits and pieces here and there. I know I’ll come back for a refreshing dose of “Squid Theft!” from time to time.