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Review: Guy Maddin’s ‘The Forbidden Room’

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Guy Maddin is a director interested in pushing the boundaries of film making, but not by embracing the technology of future or leaping forward into IMAX Digital Projection and 3D. Instead, he believes in using the tools of the past, using them to play with form and narrative to create truly unique visions, which make his films easily recognizable. With Maddin’s latest, a nesting-doll of a film called The Forbidden Room, he pushes into his most ambitious grounds yet, bringing us on a journey through dreams, folk tales, memoirs and stories from a variety of characters, ranging from the crew of a doomed submarine to a Jekyl-and-Hyde-style obsessive, and almost everything in between.

Describing Maddin films is much akin to describing a dream you had the night before. It’s all fleeting, illusory moments melding into each other, full of gripping images, but with only a haunting sense of raw emotion lingering in the foreground. The Forbidden Room may very well be his most dreamlike, with storylines bobbing and weaving into each other (with a flimsy connection linking them), characters zipping through time and space with abandon. The film makes for an exhilarating experience, as you never quite know where you are at any moment, or where you might end up the next. Will we be joining the woodsman as he tries to free the beautiful kidnapped girl? Are we checking back in with the men in the explosive submarine? Is it time for a musical number about derrieres starring Udo Kier? All this occurs in just the first 30 minutes, the first level of the wild rabbit hole that is Maddin’s latest endeavor.

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In an age where technology is pushing cinema into a bold new realm, garland must be offered to any director who blazes their own trail, especially one who has the courage to forego modern niceties and utilize classic techniques. The Forbidden Room is a film out of time, utilizing cameras, lights, and even Foley techniques that bleed in from another era, with the acting heightened and purposely melodramatic, and even the makeup expressive and vibrant, techniques torn from the past. From scene to scene, The Forbidden Room seems to have more in common with opera than any of the films playing at the surrounding screens, with much of the action playing to the back of the auditorium. Many of the actors and actresses seem like they were pulled straight out of a film by Carl Theodor Dreyer or F.W. Murnau, and one would hardly be surprised to see Lillian Gish or Renee Falconetti walk on to screen at any moment. The sets are simple, and in the wrong hands, the whole of it would come off as silly (and, at times, it falls into that camp). Maddin knows this terrain, however, and along with his co-director Evan Johnson (and editor John Gurdebeke), he crafts the piece with startling images and jarring cuts to keep the action riveting, with the audience forever on their toes.

Phantasmagoric and heady, The Forbidden Room is a film torn from the past, as Guy Maddin journeys even further into his own imagination, drawing out an original and enthralling journey through a kaleidoscope of different locales, time periods and genres. With Kino Lorber handling distribution, this could be the most visible of Maddin’s films yet, and it’s a delight to know that audiences at large are getting Maddin at his most delirious and unique, with a cinematic experience that truly could not have come from any other director.

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