Shot in public studios in the Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Centre PHI in Montreal, Canada, in improvised, live “happenings” featuring Mathieu Amalric, Géraldine Chaplin, Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, and many, many others, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015) serves as a summarizing achievement for the Prairie Provinces’ favorite filmmaking-son, the auteur of such film-drunk pleasures as Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), and My Winnipeg (2007). The Forbidden Room, co-directed by Evan Johnson, sustains itself on scores and scores of allusions to a massive archive of silent and early sound cinema, most often invented whole-cloth by the filmmakers; assembled anecdotally using what might best be described as a Russian nesting doll approach to storytelling, where bizarre fictions proliferate endlessly within bizarre fictions, Maddin has produced a flophouse masterwork that sees the breakneck, motion-picture-feature-in-six-minute-pace of The Heart of the World (2000) exhaustingly applied to The Forbidden Room’s two-hour screening length. As befits its production history, the fragmentary experience of this supreme example of contemporary montage film art — one where stories constantly pause to give screen time to others — is closest to seeing, or better still, drowsily half remembering the entire shoddy output of a long-forgotten poverty row studio.
After quoting from the Gospel of John, apropos of its approach to a fictionalized film history — “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” — and introducing a series of distressed, silent-style titles that secure the picture’s relationship to this same film-historical moment, The Forbidden Room opens with the first of a number of framing narratives that sets the film’s supremely Maddin-esque tone from the outset: Marv narrates a fake instructional film on the history and methods of bathing, assuring the viewer that he knows all this because “people have told me, that’s how!” With this comedically cultivated bit of laziness in the dialogue, Maddin’s camera circles down the drain as we commence with a submarine-set storyline, where “Four Frightened Men” are charged with transporting dangerous “blasting jelly” in their “pressure bladder” of a vessel. As this would conspicuously suggest, with the film’s characteristic lack of subtly, The Forbidden Room is a sex-obsessed, post-Freudian work of sweaty adolescent imagination, of the modest titillations to be found in a tasteless line of dialogue — it’s hard to even call it innuendo — somehow slipped past the censors, or a snippet of nudity that would make the film unplayable in Enid. In a world cinema moment in which all is effectively permissible, The Forbidden Room imagines another, earlier era in which the trick is to get away with the most absurdly graphic insinuation possible — i.e. its description of the model for “Margot’s cave.”
Though sex is always on the mind and the lips, though not on the screen, in The Forbidden Room, Maddin’s (a Harvard lecturer and recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada) and Johnson’s humor does not stop here, but rather extends — beyond your occasional bathtub flatulence joke — to their film’s awareness of the leaps in logic and outlandish plot-lines that are endemic in bottom-end classical Hollywood cinema. Shortly after we are introduced to the deep-sea setting of the submarine storyline, for instance, a “never-before-seen-woodsman” mysteriously reaches and boards the “Jelly Boys'” ship. There, he talks of his previous efforts to infiltrate the thieving, cave-dwelling Red Wolves, who have captured his beloved Margot, and will submit him to the “Ordeals of a Sapling Jack,” tests that will include “offal piling,” and animal “bladder slapping.” We already are deep into the narrative rabbit hole by the time we subsequently flash backward to the amnesiac flower girl Margot in a flea-bitten nightclub, and then to a virgin sacrifice on the edge of a volcano — story incidents that occur less than a quarter of the way into the film. The point of course is the absurd and surreal excess, that there isn’t just one insane idea here, but hundreds (ideas born from thousands of hours exploring the back channels of classical Hollywood — and deciphering its Babylonian obsessions).
Shot in public studios though it was, The Forbidden Room ultimately was made in post-production, in the silent-style titles, optical effects, and the countless manipulations that the filmmakers have applied to each and every frame. In a word, this again is that rare example of contemporary montage filmmaking, a postmodern cinema of assemblage that seeks to reproduce celluloid’s inevitable material decay. Designed as a forgotten object, as distressed and damaged film fragments, one can almost smell the acrid scent of dying celluloid in this HD cousin to the output of experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison (cf. Decasia, 2002). One of the crowning accomplishments of Maddin’s career, The Forbidden Room is a film for those who love a good bathing instructional film — and don’t mind the vinegary smell getting caught up their nose.