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Enter ‘The Forbidden Room,’ Guy Maddin’s Coiling and Hallucinatory Ode to Lost Cinema

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Eric Hynes

It’s all but impossible to describe all that happens in The Forbidden Room, since it’s all but impossible to track all that’s happening in the moment.

So let’s just say it has something to do with a doomed submarine, a woodsman determined to save his beloved from humanoid wolves, a manacled gardener, a soused parachutist attorney, a poisonous skeleton unitard, posthumous drinking buddies, an inner child murderer, and baths, for starters. It’s a film in which digressions aren’t really digressions, but rather thresholds to new flights of fancy, to more and more fervent valentines to lost and imagined cinematic worlds, to beautiful imagery and bawdy jokes.

I started just be being a little bit tortured or haunted that some lost films by some of our favorite directors couldn’t be watched.

—Guy Maddin

“I started just be being a little bit tortured or haunted that some lost films by some of our favorite directors couldn’t be watched,” Maddin explained at Sundance. “And then I asked Evan [Johnson, the co-director] if he wanted to help me research a bunch of lost film narratives, and then we discovered that we’re sort of glad that these things are lost, because we want to shoot our own versions of them—they sound really good.

“And then we realized when they were being filtered through the medium of us, and the things that matter to us most, that they all had our voice, and that they all fit together, and that the male characters all tended to be similar in response to female characters, and that there was a kind of jellification of manlinesses as our parents and parents’ parents generations expected men to behave, and then sort of jellified and quivered as much as film emulsions have during the time it took my generation to finally grow up. So it was just a matter of pointing ourselves all in one direction and making sure all the stories rhymed with each other, and fitting them all together.”

The film makes hay with a full array of early cinematic flourishes, from sprocket jumps and emulsified celluloid to copious intertitles and prominent foley sound, which engendered quite a few questions about process and the material provenance of his mad creation. Maddin confessed the movie was more filmic in spirit than in fact. “I don’t know if I should be giving away recipes, but we just shot digital. I don’t even know if there are any films in the Sundance Film Festival this year,” he said, before continuing in much the same manner as his florid, funny narrative.

“But there’s definitely a tribute to emulsion. And since a lot of the stories within the stories within the stories were inspired by lost film stories, it just felt that there should be a nod to emulsion anyway. And just the way that emulsion moves around when it’s aging and buckling and falling apart has always reminded me of what ectoplasm might look like if it moved around—the ectoplasm we know from those old spirit photographs. It just seemed like a nice vertical integration of feelings from start to finish of film history.”

And when asked why he shot in color after working in black-and-white for films such as Brand Upon the Brain! and Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, he grew mock testy. “I’m done with black-and-white. Black-and-white is so, I don’t know, yesterday. It’s time for color. It’s time for color,” he said. Then Canada’s greatest unrepentant avant-garde film fetishist added, “I’m trying to make a hit here.”


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