Guy Maddin’s BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! is such a purely, viscerally visual experience that, like trying to describe a dream, much is lost when trying to put the language of the subconscious into words. And that is what Maddin is working with here. Boasting no spoken dialogue, eccentric black-and-white exposures, he bills this as a semi-autobiographical piece. There is little question that the semi has nothing to do with the events depicted, and everything to do with the emotional response that they engender. Horror, fascination, and the comedy of the absurd mixed effortlessly with a kind of dead-on depiction of family life that while rife with hyperbole in the specifics, somehow nails the emotional experience in a way that sticking to the facts, or reality at all, would never have been able to do.
The hero is Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), returning to his childhood home on a now-deserted island. The lighthouse there, the one that served as the family home, as well as its place of business of rearing orphans, has fallen into decay in the 30 years since he last saw it. It’s also been 30 years since he’s seen his mother, a ferocious personality, with a penchant for threatening suicide as a tool of domination. But even that obsession ventured into dark Oedipal waters that stirred in the young boy the sorts of torment such things will stir in young boys. She has asked Guy, now a housepainter by trade, to return to the lighthouse and cover it all up with “two good coats of paint.” As soon as he sets foot on the island, Guys is assailed by the ghosts of his past. They fade tantalizingly in and out of view, presenting a vision of his childhood that is as much a joy as it is a re-examination of all that occurred during one fateful few days, when love blossomed in odd ways, macabre mysteries involving a rejuvenating nectar were revealed, and life as Guy had known it until then ceased forever. The story revolved around twin teen detectives who favor formal wear while detecting, an irresistible map of Romania, a sloe-eyed sister desperately looking for trouble, a mother repulsed and obsessed by the carnal, and a father for whom being alive and being dead are not much different from one another.
On one level, it is a tale of coming to terms with the past, and that theme continues throughout. But more, it is also a piquant meditation on awakening sexuality and the perverting nature of civilization taken to extremes, and family as mainstay and wasteland. It is the landscape of memory told with a terrifying whimsy and metaphors great, small, and horrific. The film repeats moments, the way a memory will repeat in the eponymous brain, re-asserting itself seemingly of its own volition, this is an experience more than a filmed entertainment, burrowing into the subconscious with its dream imagery and dream logic. For good measure, the singing voice heard during the nuptial sequence is that of a castrato.
Performed by various actors around the world in the role of the interlocotur who provides the narration, for the film it is Isabella Rossellini, the star of Maddin’s THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, as well as the short film he made about the life of her father, Roberto. Hers is a soothing, seductive voice, at once a lullaby and a siren song, full of emotion and self-consciously precise enunciation that exquisitely mirrors the precise sound effects done just a little more loudly than real life. The steps up on the stairs of the lighthouse take on a low, barely perceptible echo, waves break upon the shore with an ominous insistence, and the procedure for extracting the nectar from the orphans has the squishiness of bodies being trampled to a pulp. This is pure emotion at work, the action completely subsumed by it. The results resonate more deeply, and the reactions more unpredictably. Butter on a wall, the leavings of yet another mother-daughter squabble, presents itself to Guy (in his younger incarnation played by Sullivan Brown) for the peculiar spectacle it is, a reminder of the butter tarts that Mother uses as a sort of platonic foreplay with him, and a foodstuff that, proclaims the intertitle, is good for dippin’, a reference that acknowledges all of that and then some as Guy savagely scrapes a bit onto a morsel of bread.
BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! is a curious mix of Freud, Grimm’s fairy tales at their most dour, and the giddy genre of young adult fiction. This being Maddin, it is much more than the sum of its parts, and those parts are identified with other works merely as a reference point. This is a wholly original vision exploring the phenomenon of memory with a transcendence that includes reality and fantasy with equal measure and equal importance. It is dark, it is disturbing, and yet, this is the man’s genius, it is also wildly, improbably, blessedly funny. Maddin has created a work that is like nothing else ever committed to celluloid, even by him.