Directed by Canadian arthouse/surrealist wunderkind Guy Maddin, 1991's Careful is a bizarre story set in a nineteenth century mountain village called Tolzbad somewhere in an unnamed European country. The citizens of this village, man and animal alike, all live very quietly for any sudden noise could easily trigger an avalanche that would devastate their town and every living thing in it. This strange and rather foreboding environment has lead to a whole lot of people leading very repressed lives in Tolzbad, and as we all know, it isn't healthy to repress things for too long.
As time goes on, the people who live in the town start experiencing some strange emotions. A young man named Johann (Brent Neale) starts to feel an uncontrollable lust for his own mother who has a strange relationship with local nobleman, Count Knotkers (Paul Cox) and who flirts with her other son, Grigorss (Kyle McCulloch). Meanwhile a young woman named Klara (Sarah Neville) starts to feel similarly incestuous urges for her own father, who in turn, wants nothing more than to bed his other daughter, Klara's sister. As love triangles develop and erode, characters plunge to their own deaths starved for the love they can never know, and the strange soap opera all comes to a boil under the heaving weight of the snow that piles ever higher above the small town.
Influenced by early German silent cinema from the likes of Arnold Fanck and his better known protégé, the rather infamous Leni Riefenstahl, the aptly titled Careful, incestuous content aside, definitely looks like it could have been made at the turn of the last century were it not made in color. Those colors, however, give Maddin a massive playground to work with, various hues of magenta, purple, red and yellow used to portray all manner of strange drama and completely unexpected but no less effective comic relief.
Wonderfully overacted by an interesting looking cast of character actors, the picture is certainly an odd one but it's a compelling and funny film with some stunning art direction and set design. While the most obvious strength of the picture is the visual style, the actors here all deliver excellent work, playing up their parts the way you'd see it done in the early days of cinema. While their work may seem ham-fisted and very over baked, in the context of the strange world that Maddin has created for his stagey story to unfold in, it is an absolutely appropriate style for the cast to use.
By mixing horror, comedy and drama together into one big cinematic melting pot, Maddin has created unique and engrossing picture. The incest motif might alienate the easily offended but it does lend itself to some enjoyably awkward comedy and it makes for an interesting contrast to the conservative fictional town where it all plays out. It's not a film that will ever likely find mass appeal, in fact it's a picture that will probably alienate and confuse a large portion of the film going public, but for those who can appreciate what Maddin has done here, it's definitely a rewarding experience.
Careful arrives on DVD in a new high definition sourced transfer taken from archival elements and presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. The progressive scan image is incredibly colorful and very detailed when you consider how the film is supposed to look. It's a fairly grainy affair and some scenes are shot with the intent to appear soft and sometimes even a bit out of focus. There are scratches here and there but the colors look great, from the purple and orange hues to the inky blacks. The movie is meant to look like an older film, like a silent picture almost, and so you need to keep that in mind when watching it (the film makes it hard to ignore, actually) but Zeitgeist have done a very nice job on the transfer, the picture quality is quite strong.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track comes with optional closed captioning in English but no alternate language dubs or subtitle options. This is a pretty low-fi track, it isn't particularly fancy, but it does make great use of the film's insane score and the dialogue is always clean and clear and easy to understand. There aren't any problems with heavy hiss or distortion to report on (though it is there from time to time - and this is definitely intentional as it is in keeping with the whole 'old movie' aesthetic that the movie has) and the levels are properly balanced throughout.
The extras start off with a commentary track courtesy of director Guy Maddin and screenwriter George Toles. This is an odd track, which Toles begins by explaining how the end of his first marriage was a partial inspiration for writing this film. Maddin puts this film into context alongside a few of the pictures that he had made prior to this one, before explaining how old German cinema inspired him to make this picture. Toles apparently wanted to make a pro-interest drama and the pair figured they could combine their interests and make this picture. Maddin explains how his love of ambient sound worked its way into the film while Toles talks about how the nocturnal moaning of his neighbors jived with the sounds of his typewriter while working on the film's script. While the pair begin by talking about how they're going to 'try to remember' the making of the movie, this is actually a really well thought out and well rounded commentary track. It might go off topic now and then but the pair has got a lot to say about this strange little picture and this winds up being fairly riveting listening.
From there, check out Waiting For Twilight, a fantastic hour long documentary from 1997 that covers Guy Maddin's early career and which was made during the filming of Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs. Directed by Noam Gonick and narrated by none other than Tom Waits, this is a pretty interesting piece. Beginning with a sound bite from Maddin who claims that once the picture is finished, it'll probably be his last film as no one will let him make another film, the documentary goes on to talk about his influences, and his career highlights. Featuring a lot of interview footage with Maddin, it's an interesting examination of his unique body of work thanks to some poignant interviews with the director himself (who at one point does an interview while lying in bed) as well as plenty of people who had worked with him up to this point in his career. Make sure you watch over the end credits.
Also included is a short film that Maddin made in 1995 entitled Odilon Redon or The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity. This five minute picture tells the story of a father and son who ride a train and witness two engines crash into one another, at which point they rescue the sole survivor, a woman who they find themselves in competition with one another for. Inspired by the work of the French painter of the same name, Odilon Redon is an odd black and white picture shot with some intentionally artificial looking sets that fits in nicely with Maddin's odd 'black and white/silent movie' fixation and aesthetic.
On top of all of that, there's an insert booklet containing a two page essay on the film from critic J. Hoberman (which originally appeared as a review in the October 7, 1992 issue of The Village Voice) as well as a note about the transfer and a statement from the director. There's also a chapter listing printed on the back (as Lessons and Maxims!).
A remarkably strange but never the less completely fascinating picture, Careful receives the deluxe treatment from Zeitgeist who have done a very nice job with the transfer and the extras. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.