Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room is a deliriously mesmerizing epic tone poem, a crafty, complex avant-garde ode to cinema as memory, and memory as cinema. An homage to the lost films of the silent era, it is the illegitimate child of Bill Morrison and David Lynch, of Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger, of D. W. Griffith and Josef von Sternberg. The impossible-to-describe narrative jumps from genre to genre, from submarine thriller to Western adventure to murder yarn, from romantic melodrama and crime story to war movie and horror tale, complete with cannibals, vampires, poisoned leotards, “valcano” eruptions, caged lunatics, butt obsession, squid theft, explosive jelly, a fantastical mustache, and skeletal insurance defrauders. Intertitles that often fade away too soon to decipher help propel the plot, contain lines from John Ashbery and the Bible, and blast out such words as “Deliverer of Doom,” “Diablesa!” and “Trapped!” Text in intricate fonts announces each new character and actor, including Maddin regular Louis Negin as the Sacrifice Organizer, Slimane Dazi as shed-sleeper and pillow-hugger Baron Pappenheim, Lewis Furey as the Skull-Faced Man, and Roy Dupuis as a “mysterious woodsman” determined to rescue captured amnesiac Margot (Clara Furey) from the evil clutches of the Red Wolves. Also involved in the bizarre festivities are Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, and Maria de Medeiros.
Although shot digitally, the film explores photographic emulsion and time-ravaged nitrate while treating celluloid as an art object unto itself, looking like Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, My Winnipeg) and Johnson stomped on, burned, tore up, and put back together the nonexistent physical filmstrip. Thus, major kudos are also due Maddin’s longtime editor, John Gurdebeke, and music composers Galen Johnson, Jason Staczek, and Maddin himself for keeping it all moving forward so beautifully. The film was photographed by Benjamin Kasulke and Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron in alternating scenes of black-and-white, lurid, muted color, and sepia tones that offer constant surprises. The Forbidden Room might be about the magic of the movies, but it is also about myth and ritual, dreams and fantasy as it explores storytelling as psychodrama. Oh, and it’s also about taking baths, as Marv (Negin) so eagerly explains throughout the film. But most of all, The Forbidden Room is great fun, a truly unpredictable and original work of art that is a treat for cinephiles and moviegoers everywhere. Following its recent screenings at the New York Film Festival, The Forbidden Room is opening theatrically on October 7 at Film Forum, with Maddin present on October 12 for a Q&A after the 7:00 show (moderated by Jonathan Marlow) and to introduce the 9:30 show.