Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's films are an acquired taste. You either get them or you don't and even if you do you have to work a little to entirely enjoy them. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs abides by these traits and, in Madden's career as a filmmaker, it is both his most ambitious and his least successful film. On the plus side it has a remarkable set design, brilliant colors, fine compositions and a strong musical score. Many of the scenes in the film look like something out of a Maxwell Parish painting or Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' as imagined by a surrealist. But on the down side the acting is stilted, the pacing is off-kilter (often too slow and labored) and the script is wordy and turgid.
The film is set up as a fantasy romance and is about a guy named Peter (Nigel Whitmey) who returns from being a prisoner to a fantastically colorful bizarre world called Mandragora where he falls in love with two women. The two women Julianna (Pascale Bussieres) and Zephyr (Alice Krige) are also in love with a Dr Isaac Solti (R.H. Thompson) who in turn is in love with a statue of Venus. The statue it seems is in love with Zephyr. Yes, this is one convoluted fantastic tale and is best understood as such.
The film also includes an older couple played by Shelley Duval and Frank Gorshin who own an ostrich farm. Duvall wears pig tails and looks confused a lot and Frank Gorshin chews the scenery until Duvall hammers a nail into his head and then he starts slobbering on the scenery.
Maddin and his production team did a magnificent job of creating the fantastic world. More noteworthy is that Maddin didn't rely on computer effects to achieve the look of the film. Instead he used elaborate sets (with real trees) that were built in a large warehouse. It's truly a beautiful film to look at but it really needed a trimming in the script department and maybe a cast change or two to entirely work. It might have worked better as a silent film.
There are two other films on the disc that are more typical of the kind of films that Maddin is known for making. Archangel an 80 minute comedy/drama about a group of people living in some hermetic hinterland called 'Archangel' who have not been told that World War One has ended. The main story is about a one-legged young man Lt. John Boles (Kyle McCulloch) who falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like another woman he was previously in love with who has died. His obsession takes him into battle as he attempts to win her love.
What's notable about the film is its ironic cinematic style – with passing references to the classic works of the Soviet and German filmmakers – its dead pan humor, it's purposely splotchy and grainy black and white cinematography and its use of dubbed voices.
The use of self-conscious irony is both the most enjoyable and annoying thing about any Maddin film. There is not one scene in Archangel that is on the level. Everything is played for gags even though many of the scenes are presented straight forward with earnest emotion. Often they work well – one big gag in particular is that due to the use of mustard gas most of the characters have severe amnesia, which humorously affects all of their relationships. Yet some of the gags deal with much more serious issues: a boy is beaten and later dies, his father is shot and killed and in the end Lt Boles loses the woman he loves.
The other film on the disc is a short 6 and-a-half minute film titled The Heart of the World, which is arguably both one of the best films of last year and the best films of Maddin's career. It was shown in the Toronto Film Festival as a celebration of 100 years of cinema. It zips along at almost one shot per second for 400 seconds heavily referencing 1920's and 30's cinema and ends up being a 'passion play' about the woman who has to choose between three men (an intellectual worker, a spiritualist playing Christ, and a sensualist who's a big fat Capitalist) but instead chooses to save the world. It's such an enjoyably energetic film that you can see again and again and again and still find new meaning and images every time you see it. I've seen it ten times so far and look forward to seeing it again.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The audio on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is very quiet. The dialogue comes across as too soft and sometimes the musical score drowns it out. The audio on Archangel is much better, although it too is far from perfect or clear. But since the film has the feeling of a 1930's Easter European style film it somehow feels right.
The films are presented in full screen format and the good news is that the transfers are exceptionally better than Guy Maddin's other films Careful and Tales from the Gimli Hospital, which are available on Kino Video. Archangel is made to look rather bad like an old nitrate print found in some dusty vault, so it is difficult to judge the transfer. But the lighting seems right and it looks sharp as it would if projected. There is some compression in some of the background shots but it doesn't hurt the overall visual impact of the film. Twilight is shot in garish colors and also looks very good. Some of the image is soft but that is Madden's intention.
Twilight of The Ice Nymphs has an entertaining commentary track by Guy Madden and screenwriter George Toles. Toles talks a lot but always has something of interest to say and Madden is always self-deprecating and humorous in his usual low-key way. Archangel has a commentary track by Maddin, Toles and John Harvie and via telephone producer Greg Klymkiw. Anyone who is a fan of Madden will not want to miss these commentary tracks because they are a good record of his creative process. There is also a short (1min 40 sec) section from a documentary about the making of the film. The full documentary can be found of Kino Video's DVD of Careful. It's too bad it's not on this film since it has no place on the Kino release. There is also a section titled Original Production Design Collages for Twilight and Original storyboards drawn by Guy Maddin on The Heart of the World.
This Zeitgeist DVD features both the best (idiosyncratic surrealism, inventive anachronisms and ironic humor) and worst (inside jokes, overwritten scripts and dry acting) of Guy Madden. The disc looks very good considering that the image is purposely made to look older and poor and the extras including commentary tracks and production design photo stills are all good additions. Any true Guy Maddin fan will not want to be without the disc but everybody else is recommended to dive in with a hard hat and an open mind.