The Forbidden Room reminds me more of John Ashbery’s poetry than it does other movies.
Co-directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, this relentless cine freefall actually has a co-writer credit for the 88 year-old poet, who is cited for penning the bookending PSA spoof “How To Take A Bath.” Ashbery’s poems never end where they start and poetry critic Helen Vendler once wrote about his “eel-like darting.” Maddin and Johnson are eel-like darters throughout these two-hours of digressions and narrative wormholes, coquettishly sustained even though all the gags (primarily the moustache jokes) didn’t entirely agree with me. Regardless, this Technicolor odyssey plays, like the best Ashbery reads, as the revenge memory of cast-off things, in this instance cinematic trash in forgotten movies that play at 3 in the morning and feature submarines, jungles, squid theft, motorcycle crashes, amnesia and skeleton leotard laffs. Ashbery and Maddin have been recently displaying their collage art in galleries and The Forbidden Room is a moving, bleeding extension of that work. The frame digitally fissures as the ominous and the absurd are pumped through a revolving door (or is it subconscious mansion?) where lumberjacks, flapjacks, broken bones and Udo Kier all densely dance. If this isn’t the best Maddin (I think that would probably be 2008’s My Winnipeg) it is certainly the most Maddin.
Breaking down a list of the cast would be pointless because each character (“Margot!” “The Loyal Servant!”) is introduced in silent era title cards along with the actor’s name. There are people we recognize—Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Maria De Medeiros, Kim Morgan—and many we don’t, and as a pileup of idiosyncratic facial expressions this film rivals German’s companion carnival masterpiece Hard To Be A God (though Maddin’s canvas is far less monochromatically gruesome). Mostly, though, this is a director’s movie, or director-as-poet’s. “Pucker your ankles” a poem in Ashbery’s new collection Breezeway begins. But before we have balance, before we can say “who’s ankles?” he’s on the next thing, just as Maddin pitches an amnesiac woman (“Margot!”) into a nightclub and then interrupts matters to focus on a sweaty patron (Kier, in one of many roles) obsessed with the female posterior and getting brain sugary (“A little off the top”) to cure himself.
After the disappointing Keyhole, where Maddin’s invention veered into self-parody, The Forbidden Room offers a rejuvenated artist. I think it took his collaborations with Ashbery to help Maddin let loose. Keyhole was hampered by a reliance on a single narrative while The Forbidden Room keeps blossoming and not only avoids being repetitive or numbing but, again like Ashbery’s poetry, makes us question our relationship to linearity and timeline in the art we absorb.
If movies are all A B and C this one is all A’s and C’s; indeed towards the end one of Maddin’s travelers finds a tome called “The Book Of Climaxes,” and as he reads it we’re treated to a blistering montage of end-of-film kisses and hot air balloon collisions. Like a knowing young woman at a school dance, The Forbidden Room avoids being pinned down—that eel-like darting again—but if it “means” anything this insanity is a benign challenge to our preconceived process of watching a movie. David Lynch did the Russian Doll conceit with more emotional heft in the metropolis of Inland Empire but Maddin isn’t after audience commitment or catharsis. Stuff just happens: a blind mother receives answers from her son via phonograph recordings, endless expository text flies on the screen, advancing nothing, slashes of Maddin’s oeuvre make themselves known (there’s the towering mother figures of Brand Upon The Brain!, the balletic genre deconstruction of Dracula, the period anti-detail of Archangel, the identity politics of My Winnipeg, thankfully not much of Keyhole) and Ashbery’s influence reigns supreme.
Like Godard’s most recent film, The Forbidden Room is a labyrinthine roadrunner. Call it Goodbye To Storytelling—hello to new possibilities, new rooms.