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Forbidden Room, The

Kino // Unrated // March 8, 2016
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 18, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Over the past 30 years, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has managed to make a name for himself on the very fringes of the movie industry. His name may ring a bell for many, but even film nerds don't seem to bring up his films that often (in my own admittedly subjective experience). His most recent effort, The Forbidden Room (which he co-directed with Evan Johnson), seems to have come and gone without much fanfare, although it's hard to say if that has to do with its limited availability, its hard-to-summarize nature, or its handful of frustrating shortcomings.

The best description of the movie that I can muster is that it's constructed out of an Inception-like nesting doll labyrinth of dream-like vignettes, most of which are completely unconnected from each other in any conceivable way. The closest thing to a backbone the film contains is a thread about a submarine crew on the hunt for their captain as their oxygen runs out, after which the massive stock of melting blasting jelly will ignite. The movie veers back and forth from comedy to drama to romance to thrills and back again, shot in a style reminiscent of an old silent film, including intertitles for most (but not all) of the dialogue.

Trying to analyze the movie for some overarching message or meaning both seems futile and maybe beside the point. What connection does the the sorrowful story about a pillow-hugging man in need of a gardener have one about a doctor who is besieged by lady skeletons who poison him and try and rope him into a devious insurance scam? Is there a relationship between the woman captured by cavemen who dreams she's an amnesiac in what seems to be some sort of spy story and the submarine crew eating flapjacks in the hope that air pockets in the pancakes will extend their chances of survival? It's more likely that the movie is an unhinged blast of the co-directors' visual and stylistic creativity (both drawing on a vast library of silent films as inspiration), bursting with more conceptual invention than thematic. To describe the cleverness of a single segment would quickly turn into a list of the movie's scenes (hell, I've done it already), so it's best to just say that even when a segment drags, a completely different one is right around the corner.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is a masterpiece of low-budget bravado. A stylized reduction of detail, a bleeding burst of oversaturated color, and the visual cues suggesting a battered, melting film from the 1930s provide a visual style that transcends "authentic" or "artificial." Maddin and Johnson get far with stock footage as rear projection behind their cast members, with the oval-like vignette edges cropping the edges of the frame as if they're crawling through some maze of interconnected, darkened rooms looking at all the strange stories in each one. The image flickers and distorts itself constantly, with editing turning short conversations into long ones, and vice versa. In its dingy, other-worldly way, The Forbidden Room is always beautiful, simultaneously old-fashioned and oddly cutting-edge.

Maddin and Johnson's structure, which amounts to a lengthy series of short films, allows for an impressively varied cast of actors from around the globe. Udo Kier turns up as a man so obsessed with women's butts that he subjects himself unsuccessfully to repeated brain surgery to try and cure his lust, a sequence accompanied by a haunting song by a singer whose face is obscured by "print damage." Geraldine Chaplin also appears in this sequence as his lust, whipping him into submission. Mathieu Amalric turns up as a a man who is so desperate to impress his wife with a collection of flea-market junk that he murders a butler. Pulp Fiction's Maria de Medeiros appears as a woman whose husband has died, prompting her young son to take his place to avoid causing her any grief, using a very limited phonograph record whenever she asks him a question. Aside from the more familiar faces, Clara Furey and Louis Negin take on multiple roles, including the latter as the host of an educational video used as a framing device teaching the viewer how to take a bath.

If there's a drawback to The Forbidden Room's unabashed attention-deficit disorder, it's that Maddin and Johnson never reveal anything deeper about these stories, and many of them, although funny in and of themselves, drag on past the point of tedium when considered within the movie's massive two-hour running time. There is no central storyline to keep the viewer interested from beginning to end, and thus, it's hard to stay focused on the movie as a whole. Maddin's vision is deliriously creative, a burst of unbridled energy -- a lack of control which has both advantages and drawbacks.

The Blu-ray
Kino Lorber offer The Forbidden Room on Blu-ray with perfectly arbitrary artwork, featuring Negin in front of a raging "vulcano." The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and inside there is a booklet featuring a 2002 interview with Maddin by Hillary Weston, and an essay by Maddin on the making of the film itself that is quite fascinating.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, judging the merits of The Forbidden Room as a whole is kind of fruitless. This is such a stylized audiovisual presentation that most of the normal measures of quality no longer apply. The visual style of the movie is intentionally distorted, fuzzy, fading, unnatural, and awkward. At the same time, there's a clarity to some of these images, even underneath the many filters and adjustments, that approaches a 3D appearance. Certain lines of dialogue stand out from the "atmosphere" of the rest of the audio, as if they were record and dropped right into the picture with no polish, while others have the distant echo of vintage audio, with crackling and a faint underwater feel. There is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. No subtitles or captions are included.

The Extras
A wonderful audio commentary by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson is included, in which the pair detail their unusual shoot (on a moving train, allowing them to capture tax breaks in every one of Canada's various provinces!), their myriad of inspirations for the film, the limitations of their budget and shooting schedule, tricks of the trade used to connect actors who never met or even knew they were intended to interact with one another, and more. Maddin also notes at one point that he knows the fragmented nature of the movie is exhausting, but hopes that fans "dip into it" from time to time, noting that he often reads 40 pages of novels and not the rest. Fascinating.

"Endless Ectoloops" (8:56) are not literally endless, but could be theoretically looped indefinitely, a series of morphing faces that distort and reform again and again. "Living Posters" (2:17) are similar, although they extend to more than faces and include the title and credits, as one expects a poster to. Finally, "Once a Chicken" (6:51) is a surreal, silent, black-and-white short film by Maddin featuring Laslo Moholy-Nagy.

An original teaser trailer and original theatrical trailer for The Forbidden Room are also included.

Although the movie sometimes tests the patience (which is apparently by design, or at least fully understood by Maddin and co-director Johnson), The Forbidden Room is filled with wild, evocative, unique imagery, some hilarious and dazzling sequences, and is undoubtedly unlike any other movie released in 2015. The disc also features a fantastic commentary by Maddin and Johnson. Highly recommended.

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