VIFF 2015: The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

forbidden room faces

Guy Maddin made a music video for a Sparks song about asses starring a lobotomized Udo Kier and whip-wielding Geraldine Chaplin. He (along with co-writer/director Evan Johnson) also made a couple dozen more weird, wacky, wonderful films and smashed them together in the glorious, uproarious new feature, The Forbidden Room. It’s Maddin’s best feature to date and one of the essential cinema experiences of the year.

To further the hyperbole, The Forbidden Room opens with perhaps the greatest credit sequence in film history. Created by Galen Johnson, each individual credit is unique and delivered in a perfect facsimile of cinema’s past, from silent melodrama to MGM musical and everything in between. It expertly sets the overstuffed table for the delirious genre-hopping to come. And from there it is off to the races.

forbidden room bath

First the audience is given instruction on how to properly take a bath. This is the first inkling of the Monty Python-esque humor the filmmakers are trading in. Consider it their “How Not to Be Seen” sketch. And like the Pythons, before you know it, it’s time for something completely different. Cut to a submarine floating deep beneath the sea and before long it is evident that Maddin and Johnson are like two boys playing in the tub. They’re full of energy and imagination, and whenever they tire of their story, they will just throw in something incongruous, jolting, rejuvenating. Such as it is after learning of the submarine crew’s depleting oxygen supply, they are greeted by a woodsman who inexplicably appears in the hull, fathoms below sea level. How did he get here? Why?

The mysteries pile up only to be shoved aside by some fresh bit of mischief. But they’re not entirely forgotten. The film does eventually come back around and yes, there is a forbidden room. Each of the subsequent narratives is nested in one another and by the time the film finds itself deep within its dreams devised by mustaches (Dali is in the DNA, too) the film resurfaces like the submarine and to the submarine it began with.

forbidden room

It is always a treat to see Maddin’s expertise with recreating the look and feel of cinema gone by. He does it better than anyone else — and there is practically a cottage industry of anyone elses nowadays, with the windfall that greeted The Artist — because he doesn’t hold this style as a museum piece to be preserved or anachronism to be aped. He sees early cinema, its tinted frames and painted backdrops, as living forms of expression, as vital today as they were a century ago.

And while he respects the craft (this movie took a lot of effort to pull off) The Forbidden Room works because it never takes itself — or anything — seriously. At over two hours, it’s the longest Maddin film to date but unlike his shorter features the shifting perspective and constantly reinventing forms keep it captivating. And of course, one could not pull off such insanity without a game cast. Luckily, Maddin and Johnson have playmates in the bathtub, including the aforementioned Chaplin and Kier, who join Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and the usual Canadian oddballs Maddin manages to scrounge up.


(The Forbidden Room plays at the Northwest Film Forum 10/16 – 10/22.)