Originally conceived as part of an art instillation at the Power Plant Art Gallery in Toronto (and to be viewed in ten six-minute segments through peepholes), Cowards Bend the Knee is a 60-minute head trip, one that "represents" Maddin's life in more of an allegorical manner than a straightforward fact-based approach. While it muddles the details of Maddin's life, it makes for a strangely entertaining, fascinating look at the relationship between man and woman and the attraction to all things "new."
Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) is a star player for the Winnipeg Maroons, but his personal life is something less than exemplary. His girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) needs an abortion, his mother is in the hospital, and his eyes are wandering – toward Meta (Melissa Dionisio), the daughter of the owner of the hair salon/bordello/abortion clinic. Meta, though, needs his help – he can never touch her until her father's death – at her mother's hand – is avenged.
If the plot wasn't dizzying enough, there is the subject of Maddin's signature style; Cowards Bend the Knee is shot in black-and-white Super 8, with out-of-focus title and dialogue cards along with a silent film score.
The "autobiographical" content here is scattered throughout. Maddin grew up in and around the ice rink (his father was the treasurer of the Maroons) and in a hair salon (the family business). But he did not undergo a hand transplant. Instead of a straightforward fact-based autobiography, Maddin presents a sort of "emotional autobiography" about his interpersonal dealings, especially where women are concerned. There are some events in the film from his life (both in the character "Guy Maddin" and in others), but it's not meant to be literal.
There's no question that Cowards Bend the Knee is not for everyone. Those looking for spoonfed, popcorn-munching, turn-off-the-brain entertainment would do better watching just about anything else.
What those will find most maddening about Maddin is that his film is not, in any way, about the plot or story. It's about ideas – ideas on the nature of film and the way we communicate both thoughts and emotions. Ironically, because of that, this is a film that might be best enjoyed without thinking; yes, it is "unrealistic" and yes, some of the plot devices are contrived. That's not Maddin's concern.
Maddin's films also deal heavily in melodrama - not as parody, but with a true appreciation for its art. The actors are chosen specifically for their facial theatrics, as it is a rare find to get an actor that can convey everything in his or her body without spoken dialogue. Fehr and Dionisio are both particularly adept here, but each member of the cast puts in, at a minimum, a solid performance.
John Gurdebeke's editing work deserves special mention here, as the film's repetition and quick cuts give it a dreamlike quality that, when enhanced by Maddin's cinematography, creates a mood and an atmosphere better than any high definition, big budget film ever could.
At the end, though, this is mostly Maddin's success. Cowards Bend the Knee is a spectacular vision, fully realized by a true mad genius of an auteur.
(NOTE: The film is unrated. It contains frontal nudity and some sexual situations.)
How does one go about praising or criticizing how such a unique film looks on DVD? The transfer of the film does not appear to suffer from any digital flaws, and the full screen transfer is everything you would expect from something shot on Super 8. This disc should not go next to any copies of Star Wars III, but it gets the job done.
The 2.0 track has significant noise and pops, but it is supposed to sound like that. Again, it is difficult to measure this disc on the normal scale, but it represents the intended sound – if not perfect sound – quite well.
The sheer volume of special features on the DVD presentation of Cowards Bend the Knee more than makes up for the feature's short running time.
The place to start is with the feature length commentary by Maddin, which sheds a great deal of light on the "autobiographical" references inside the film, along with interesting insights into his creative process. The track is a major help in fully understanding the film.
An eight-plus minute preview of Maddin's next feature, Brand Upon the Brain! shows behind-the-scenes footage on location in Seattle, with a voiceover track from Maddin talking about the project, its links to Cowards Bend the Knee, and his first "foreign film" experience.
An area called Love-Chaunt Workbooks is a compilation of footage shot for a feature entitled Love-Chaunt of the Chimney. Most of the footage was destroyed in a fire, with just enough remaining for Maddin's five-minute short released in 1999.
Even the photo gallery is a cut above normal DVD filler, with three separate sections; along with production stills, there are photos of the real life hair salon and the ice rink in Winnipeg where a young Maddin spent most of his formative years.
Cowards Bend the Knee lacks some of the accessibility of Maddin's 2004 masterwork The Saddest Music in the World. But the film is a fascinating trip into a gifted, eccentric mind, and is worthy of a spot in any DVD collection.