The Forbidden Room
Directors Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson Cast Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin
Canada 2015, 2h10m, 12A: moderate violence, injury detail, sex references, nudity
Please note that this article contains spoilers.
As described by critic David Ehrlich for Time Out New York, Canadian maverick Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room – co-directed with a former student of his, Evan Johnson – is ‘a dense quilt of nested scenes that were allegedly pulled from the cinema’s great abandoned films.’1 According to interviews, The Forbidden Room grew out of Maddin’s interactive Seances project, in which lost films from the silent era are resurrected via re-writing and shooting them live at Montreal’s Phi Center and Paris’ Pompidou Center. Due to the fate that befell the vast majority of silent cinema, sometimes the project has nothing more to go on than a title, as so few remnants of the work have been preserved.2
The film’s main story fragments in its spasmodic, kaleidoscopic structure are supposedly based on the titles of a wide range of lost works, from long-forgotten Hollywood genre films to serials from the early days of sound cinema. In his review for Sight & Sound, Tony Rayns points out some of the more specific cinematic allusions.3 ‘The framing material, in which Maddin regular Louis Negin performs a monologue written by the poet John Ashbery on bath-time etiquette, was suggested by a lost 1937 short by Dwain Esper, How to Take a Bath. (Esper’s original featured two contrasted women; this features an unprepossessing male hippie.)’4
Additionally, The Forbidden Room takes its title from ‘a lost Allan Dwan three-reeler of 1914 (a madwoman-locked-in-the-attic story; Lon Chaney was in a supporting role),’5 while story snippets are inspired by ‘[F.W.] Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920, a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story) and [Mikio] Naruse’s The Strength of a Moustache (Hige no Chikara, 1931)’.6 Not that familiarity with the history of lost silent cinema is at all required to get something from the film’s phantasmagorical delights. Indeed, as Ehrlich mentions in his review, the background to the film’s conception is mere window dressing, not something explicitly conveyed within the work itself outside of the digital trickery used to make it visually resemble early colour cinema: ‘The Forbidden Room never proves that Maddin is reanimating “real” lost projects, but how real can a film be if it was never shot?’7 Furthermore, he suggests that ‘whatever history these abandoned projects might have had is completely supplanted by the present Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) invents for them. These stories belong to him now. The Forbidden Room may forego the hypnotically autobiographical thrust of recent efforts like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain!, but it feels no less personal for it.’8
When describing the structure of The Forbidden Room, one might be inclined to make reference to Russian nesting dolls due to how every new story suddenly gives way to another story, but that comparison would suggest a degree of rhyme or coherent reason to the way Maddin and Johnson blend their various, occasionally star-studded tangents; how they make one story morph into another, rather than change direction in a clear fashion. For Little White Lies magazine, writer Anton Bitel described the structure in a particularly evocative fashion, and in a way that brings to mind another possible cinematic allusion beyond silent cinema: ‘The painted backdrops, the vaseline-smeared lenses, the tinted images, the overwrought gestural performances, the hyperbolic score, the endless succession of sensationalist, bizarre and often lewd intertitles – these retro stylings have become a signature of Maddin’s work, and here they are the gooey glue that beautifully, if barely, holds together his free associations. It is as though random episodes from different 1930s serial melodramas were sent swirling together down the same plughole, in a descending spiral of dizzyingly lost connections and bent plumbing – like Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript reinvented as hornily fetishistic hallucination by someone who has gone heavy on the bath salts.’9
In an interview with Maddin and Johnson for Reverse Shot, Eric Hynes suggests that ‘the film is drunk on story, but it’s story as an element among other things, rather than the sole driving force. It’s like story is another surface for you to play with.’10 Maddin references French writer Raymond Roussel’s ‘nesting fictions’ as an inspiration: ‘This French writer from the twenties and thirties who wrote poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. Everything is nestings within nestings within nestings.’11
In direct response to Hynes’s description of the story as another surface, Johnson also offers the following musing regarding the French writer: ‘That’s also another thing inspired by Raymond Roussel. His stories are almost pure narrative framework. And then the content itself is mysteriously absent or meaningless. We weren’t trying to have meaningless content—we wanted it to be psychologically true, or true to our lives, or funny... But there’s still something about the complexity of a structure with a sort of emptiness at the middle. The complexity of the structure suggests that you’re going to find something important right at the end of the reel—the secret. And the key is that you don’t. I mean, that’s a classic technique, a common theme in films that are about desire, or are about wish fulfilment. Say [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where they end up in The Room that’s going to fulfil their desires, but when they get there and they’re like, I don’t know, I don’t have any desires, I guess, or my desires are incoherent.’12
Therein lays the key to ‘understanding’ the spirit of The Forbidden Room, as it were. As Hynes puts it, ‘Once acclimated to the notion that no established thread will ever satisfyingly be tied up in the end, you’re freed to exult in the momentary—and to register the gravity behind such a structural assertion, that all that’s lost can only be briefly summoned or glimpsed or guessed at before it fades back away.’13 Or, to put it another way as Ehrlich succinctly does: ‘At a time when everyone is talking about the death of the movies, Guy Maddin proves that we can always bring them back to life.’14
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