How does one synopsize a Guy Maddin film? The Forbidden Room, which the Winnipeg auteur co-directed with Evan Johnson, is vaguely about a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) who, while on a mission to save a maiden from his village from a group of beastly-looking dudes in the Canadian (?) wilderness, somehow ends up in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean amongst a crew with a dangerous cargo. This spins off into several other dreamlike anecdotes that push the film into increasingly wilder territories.
Maddin’s distinctive vision is on full display; he indulges in the early silent film aesthetics and old Hollywood genre tropes that have made him such an endearing cult treasure over the last few decades. With The Forbidden Room, he has recreated the feeling of stumbling across some strange, old program on television while half-asleep in the middle of the night. It’s a full-on phantasmagoria of surreal fables that sort of fuse into each other. It’s also a treat to see an expansive cast full of both cinematic legends (Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, André Wilms and more) and highly respected contemporary actors (Dupuis, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Karine Vanasse, et al.) all diving head first into the insanity.
Whether it works as a cohesive film, however, is debatable. Clearly, The Forbidden Room is a dense, complex work that requires multiple viewings to fully comprehend. The outlandish randomness of the fractured narrative often provokes more tedium than excitement and an atmosphere of slumber threatens to overwhelm. And yet, individual moments work wonderfully, and the overall feel sticks with you. A bookended sequence called “How to Take a Bath” that mimics the style of old 1950s-era instructional videos captures the spirit of archaic media lunacy in which Maddin is at his best.
The Forbidden Room seems locked up pretty tightly inside Maddin’s head, and an appreciation for it may depend on how far one is willing to dig.