The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Forbidden Room.
Overwhelmed with narrative and fearful that their brains might explode under its pressure, Canadian cult filmmaker Guy Maddin and his co-creator Evan Johnson offer the ultimate epic phantasmagoria from the ectoplasmic residue of early cinema’s lost films. Two-Strip Technicolor havoc is created with the assistance of master poet John Ashbery, actor Udo Kier, and a host of French and Québécois stars who filmed on public sets at Paris’ Pompidou Center and Montreal’s Phi Center. The Forbidden Room is a kaleidoscopic viewing experience borne from cinema’s past, present, and future where flapjacking eating submarine crews, forest bandits, skeleton women, and vampire bananas await!
- New 4K digital master, with 5.1 digital DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
- Interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the Phi Center shoots
- Endless Ectoloops
- Living posters
- Theatrical trailer
- Seven-episode series on Guy Maddin’s Seances from the Phi Center
- New interview with cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke
- New interview with production designer Galen Johnson on his design of the film’s more than 400 intertitle screens
- La chambre interdite, French version of The Forbidden Room with French intertitle screens
- The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin, Yves Montmayeur’s 65-minute documentary on “the Canadian David Lynch”
- Once a Chicken, a séance with László Moholy-Nagy
- Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson’s short film on the making of Paul Gross’s Canadian war film, Hyena Road, with introduction by the filmmakers
- Footage from the Toronto Film Critics Association’s awards ceremony naming The Forbidden Room 2015’s Best Canadian Film
- PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by Guy Maddin and film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Hillary Weston
Reviewers of Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room (2016) seem to find themselves flummoxed at adequately describing this hallucinatory film. In most cases, a summary of the movie’s initial sequences are described (usually amounting to the film’s first 30 minutes or so), followed by a smattering of references to some favourite scenes. Who are we to judge? The episodic, random, and surreal nature of The Forbidden Room stymies any chance of neatly recounting what passes as its plot. We’ll also focus on the ingredients and the flavour, rather than try to name the meal.
The film opens with Maddin-muse Louis Negin providing a how-to instructional on bathing that evokes the texture of a rather harshly shot roughie. The sequence was written by American poet John Ashbery taking inspiration from the title of a lost sexploitation film by Dwain Esper, How to Take a Bath (1937). As such, The Forbidden Room immediately links to Maddin’s concurrent project Seances, intended to be a National Film Board of Canada website installation wherein an interactive presentation of short films inspired by lost movies and shot by Maddin are “connected together into a paranormally eerie, semi-coherent whole.” Both The Forbidden Room sequences and the shorts of Seances were filmed at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal in studios open to the public, and at least some of the footage will pull double-duty, appearing in both projects while representing different narratives.
Armed with expert advice on bathing, The Forbidden Room sinks below water level to consider the plight of a desperate submarine crew unable to surface due to their melting load of “blasting jelly.” They prolong their oxygen supply by eating flapjacks and breathing in the air trapped within the cooked batter’s air pockets. The Forbidden Room shifts again with the inexplicable arrival of a novice lumberjack (a “saplingjack’) from “the blackest part of Schleswig-Holstein” who tells the tale of his efforts to save the fair Margot (Clara Furey) from a gang of quaintly and nonsensically feral men called the Red Wolves. This brave woodsman (Québécois star Roy Dupuis) infiltrates the Wolves after surmounting their initiation tests of finger snapping, offal piling, stone weighing, and bladder slapping, but it is Margot who achieves her own escape through dream, arriving in a tropical nightclub where she works as a flower girl and a singer. And The Forbidden Room carries on, delving and digressing through all manner of fevered vignettes. Udo Keir receives multiple lobotomies to cure his lust for women’s derrieres. A South Pacific islander is punished for squid theft. “The Skull-Faced Man and his gang of Skeletal Insurance Defrauders” use poisonous leotards as part of their criminal plans. Mathieu Amalric goes to murderous ends to cover up forgetting his wife’s birthday. A man meets his evil double – “Lug Lug – Hideous Impulse Incarnate.” Appearances are made by Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Maria de Medieros, Charlotte Rampling, Ariane Labed, and a litany of Quebec cinema stars until a Borgesian “Book of Climaxes” madly wrestles The Forbidden Room toward its conclusion.
The Forbidden Room initially takes up a nesting doll structure of stories in stories but, as Maddin acknowledges, that structure loosens as the film proceeds, failing to abide the in/out rigour of movies like The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Jerzy Has, 1965) or Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010). Maddin and Johnson’s film becomes more like a labyrinth where previous paths are crossed while exploring new ones. In doing so, all the usual Maddin-esque tropes and themes are revealed – dream logic, fetishism, melodrama, somnambulism, emotionality, amnesia, and dead parents – set in the vivid but unpredictable grammar of late-1920s cinema, where sound technology uneasily integrated with the established vernacular of the silent eras. All of Maddin’s films have an element of pastiche to them, of the past finding a place in the present, whether that be film content (old TV shows, dead fathers, vampires), film form (Soviet constructivism, German expressionism), or extra-diegetic contribution (live narrative, orchestration, or foley work), but The Forbidden Room seems to go farther, taking Maddin’s mischievous and prurient interest in bygone cinema and dispelling any appearance of being a precious and backward-looking celluloid fusspot.
Maddin’s take on early narrative cinema is preoccupied here with its own mortality. The plastics of The Forbidden Room self-consciously foreground film’s decay as it melts, bubbles, distorts, and buckles – watch The Forbidden Room‘s opening title sequences at Art of the Title and wonder at the best minute and a half of cinema offered in 2015! Maddin, or more particularly his co-director Evan Johnson and his production designer/title designer Galen Johnson, conjure the ghosts of lost celluloid (or perhaps its zombies) by the conspicuous necromancy of digital technology. Through the abuse and misuse of various softwares, the Brothers Johnson transformed the dispiriting look of raw video footage into Process 2 ectoplasm with just a soupçon of digital artifact. “Goat-glanding,” that process of incorporating early sound into silent cinema, has always been a key reference point to Maddin’s work, but the foregrounded emphasis on digital technology in The Forbidden Room takes this merger into new directions. The film seems to trace the demise of film, and the vernaculars contained within it, through its replacing media, eulogizing its loss through its partial resurrection. As such, the labyrinthine structure of The Forbidden Room comes to resemble a haunted hall of mirrors where present day filmmaking is used to reflect back cinema’s history, conjuring old ghosts but distorting them in the process of reviving them.
The Forbidden Room is an exhausting, overwhelming experience. The film moves from outlandish premise to outlandish premise, never settling long enough to let the novelty wear off of any one concept or visual style or to become taken for granted. It is and remains formally and narratively wild throughout, and Maddin seems pleased with those viewers who wonder midway through the movie if it would ever end or those critics who finds themselves exhausted by the film’s conclusion. The creators describe The Forbidden Room as a means to exorcise from themselves the surfeit of narrative that their research in lost cinema inspired. Maddin describes it as his best work, and its easy to see as the film takes the director’s best format, the short film, and strings various scenes into a wild, table-tipping ride through cinema’s past, one that displays a sophisticated degree of colour and digital effect unrepresented in his previous work. Maddin may have made his most Maddin-ish film with The Forbidden Room, an impressive feat given the new challenges undertaken in the project.
With a Kino Lorber Blu-ray soon to be released, it may be a stretch to expect a Criterion edition of the film. At best, we might have to wait a few years, as occurred with My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007). The Kino Lorber cover treatment is actually quite good and so we have little to quibble about in that regard. Thinking alternatively for a potential Criterion cover treatment, Galen Johnson’s 500 intertitle screens prepared for the film seems to suggest a wealth of material that could be drawn upon. If not, then we would simply suggest having Johnson design the packaging himself.
Credits: First, this post contributes to the O Canada: Great White North Blogathon. Big thanks to Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings for organizing the event and letting MMC! participate! Can we reserve our titles for next year now?!?
The commentary, the endless ectoloops (whatever those are), the living posters, the trailer, the Once a Chicken short, and the essays by Maddin and Weston are all extras ported over from the upcoming Kino Lorber Blu-ray. The cover summary is a hodgepodge of the Kino Lorber summary and Maddin’s own statement from the press kit.
Maddin is adamant that Seances is exclusively a web project and its component parts will never find their way onto disc. That said, The Forbidden Room and Seances were shot together, their content overlaps, both are inspired a lost films, and they related as admitted companion pieces (Maddin notes the feature film was conceived of as a means to secure financing unavailable to the online project) and so we’ve included various features and background content available from the Phi Centre shoots, including a new interview with cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke. Galen Johnson prepared approximately 500 intertitle screens for the film (and then made French versions for the francophone edition of the film), and so we thought it only fair to give him his due with a special feature on his efforts and a full blown presentation of the French La chamber interdit.
We’ve also included a recent documentary on Maddin and the contentious making-of short on Hyena Road. The Toronto Film Critics Association awards ceremony has some great lines in it, like Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar’s assertion that the $100,000 is too much for Maddin to handle and that he should be given a $10,000 annual stipend for life or Maddin’s commitment to use the money to bring an NFL franchise to Winnipeg (I wish!), and so that makes its way onto this imagined Criterion edition as well. Lastly, we’ve added an essay by avowed Maddin-supporter, Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The Forbidden Room has something of a long and convoluted history and production effort and so we recommend a number of Q&As with Maddin (and sometimes Johnson) unpacking the efforts surrounding the film, including interviews at the 53rd New York Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, Beyond Cinema Magazine, and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Also of assistance was Jonathan Ball’s interview with Maddin, Art of the Title‘s interview with Galen Johnson, Mark Peranson’s interview for Cinema Scope, Steve Macfarlane’s interview for BOMB magazine, and Scott Macaulay’s interview with cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke for Filmmaker Magazine.