To see a Guy Maddin film is to have the disconcerting experience of having the horrors of the commonplace revealed. With the most delicate shifting of perspective, and by only a few metaphorical millimeters, hitherto unsuspected absurdities are made manifest, resulting in a comedy to give you nightmares, and nightmares to make you howl with laughter. Nervous laughter. His command of visual storytelling is a carnival of semiotics and cinematic sleight-of-hand that creates a hyper-reality that is more intense than actual reality, if only for its lack of anything as reassuring as linear storytelling. Thus, it is far more exhilarating.
And so it is with THE FORBIDDDEN ROOM, a tale that diffuses murkiness of the insatiable id through the sophisticated lens of antique film idioms. Starting with an instructional film of dubious merit that attempts to teach us how to take a bath, the most banal of activities opens up stories within stories tightly bound by irrefutable tangents and mythic archetypes savagely deconstructed, but losing none of their power. Hence Oedipal urges become the fevered daydream of a sentimental, and disembodied, mustache. The stranger in the fog is both irresistible and threatening.
Sex, death, and madness blaze across the screen with dialogue, spoken and inter-titled, providing a garnish to the fugue state of the characters on screen. Distant mothers, virgin-devouring volcanoes, and supernatural tropical produce coalesce with the saga of a submarine trapped underwater by a sinister jelly. The crew members survive on hope and flapjacks, and are not surprised by the sudden appearance of a lumberjack, who spins his own story of wolves that shifts to one of squid thievery and an amnesiac flower girl. Maddin maintains a strict formality, akin to that of Kabuki or Noh, in the service of overt silliness. It’s subversive in a deliciously puckish way, poking giddily at the staleness of convention while also fearlessly plumbing our deepest fears, not the least of which is psycho-sexual angst, and then turning them in the cosmic punch line that they probably are.
What to make of Geraldine Chaplin cracking a whip while baring her teeth as The Master Passion, whose savagery is punctuated with snippets of brain surgery as a ditty paying homage to an unhealthy obsession with derrieres plays liltingly? That THE FORBIDDEN ROOM is so purely a visual experience that words, of necessity, must fail. To see it, though, is to be swept into a realm all the more eerie for its ersatz familiarity. It’s an intoxicating amalgam of mystery, wonder, and scintillatingly perverse pleasure.