Wild, wacky, and wondrous, The Forbidden Room is a nerve-shredding, discombobulating experience; a scathing dreamscape of a film whose bits and pieces overwhelm, dazzle, and confuse in equal measure, evading every scrap of reason and making one’s temple throb incessantly. Madcap, mock-heroic, faux-mythic, and aggressively experimental to the point of being inscrutable, it’s an avant-garde behemoth of “boggling puzzlements.”
Winnipeg-bred Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has never been someone to embark upon the linear, conventional, or familiar. An installation artist and silent and early-sound-era film aficionado (with a penchant for oxygen-infused flapjacks), Maddin has a bottomless well of subconscious creativity. It’s all on display in The Forbidden Room. Its breakneck inventiveness and hallucinatory dream logic will leave you breathless.
The labyrinthine, Russian-nesting-doll structure encompasses a menagerie of characters: stranded sailors, amnesiac dancers, teleporting woodsman, accident-prone motorcycle riders, body-switching butlers, non-absorbent poison skeleton leotard-wearers. Dissolve, apparition, flashback, dream, song, and death send us careening towards various facets of existence. Like Raúl Ruiz’s masterful Mysteries of Lisbon, The Forbidden Room folds inward, its multiple lawyers collapsing and interacting with each other even as the film spirals back towards its beginning.
To his credit, Maddin has assembled well-known actors of high calibre and unknown actors of high talent for his latest deranged project. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Geraldine Chaplin (Talk to Her, The Orphanage), Udo Kier (a Lars von Trier staple in Breaking the Waves and Melancholia), and Charlotte Rampling (Under the Sand, The Mill and the Cross) make lasting impressions upon brief appearances.
In addition, Maddin’s flair for shooting women lusciously, as if bathed in moonlight, does wonders in making Clara Furey and Caroline Dhavernas striking, sensuous objects of desire. (Ironically, parts of The Forbidden Room echo Dhavernas’ surreal, indelible lesbian sex sequence with fellow Canadian Katharine Isabelle in NBC’s cancelled-far-too-soon Hannibal.)
Exhilarating and exhausting, The Forbidden Room is overflowing with idiosyncratic lunacy. Carefully designed title cards introduce each character and the actor playing them. The editing and camerawork, including scratched negatives and two-strip Technicolor, give the impression that the film stock is melting and foaming and mutating before one’s very eyes.
Suitable for lovers of Holy Motors, Upstream Color, or those who felt that Mulholland Dr. was too straightforward (almost to the exclusion of all others), The Forbidden Room evokes Buñuel and Leos Carax, hearkening directly to Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. Maddin’s odyssey is parallel to Inland Empire’s place in the Lynch filmography, both films representing the boldest and fullest expressions of their directors’ darkest and craziest proclivities.
In other words, The Forbidden Room is completely unhinged, a boiling cauldron of batshit insanity containing Milton quotes, miraculous surgeries, volcanic nightmares, bathtub treatises, jungle vampires, and wolfish cave dwellers, not to mention “shadow bananas.” It opens with a biblical metaphor (“Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost”) and ends with a penultimate Book of Climaxes that somehow has it both ways: dangling many tantalizing threads yet inflicting a kaleidoscope of colliding closing images.
The Forbidden Room is too much of a good thing: a bit too long (the TIFF edition already shaved several minutes from the 131-minute Sundance cut) and a slight tier below Maddin’s greatest work, the award-winning 6-minute short “The Heart of the World” and the acclaimed 80-minute “docu-fantasia” My Winnipeg. I would also contend that the campy, comical framing device is unnecessary, but plunging into such a jetstream of undiluted, restless, fevered imagination without some kind of grounding would threaten to blow every viewer to smithereens.
The Forbidden Room’s mad visual extravaganza, its phantasmagoria of horrific expressionist imagery, and its beguiling interweaving of bizarre vignettes with themes of grief and infatuation overpower any shortcomings. You watch The Forbidden Room in a daze and walk out shell-shocked, convinced that you’ve just seen the work of an unparalleled cinematic voice and an artist who refuses to conform or compromise.
According to Maddin, “melodrama is not the truth exaggerated; it’s the truth uninhibited.” In the same way, The Forbidden Room is cinema uninhibited, and a hell of an unforgettable ride.