Published Sep 12, 2015When The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's gleefully experimental, subconscious Freudian dream of a movie starts, a group of men are stranded in a submarine. Unable to find a way out and concerned about maintaining oxygen, they breathe air from the bubbles within pancakes, which is something that Cesare (Roy Dupuis), a dazed woodsman, does without question when he inexplicably appears in a hutch on the ship, claiming that just prior, he was working in the woods contemplating dipping into a bit of strange. The focus then shifts to Cesare's efforts to win bedding rights with Margot (Clara Furey), stacking intestines, weighing his genitals and engaging in finger-snapping contests with the pack leader of an ersatz wolf-people cave community.
Confused? This is the world of The Forbidden Room. It's surreal and dreamlike; the style is fluid; it's filled with an array of references to classic cinema; and it denotes the underlying pursuit of coitus in virtually all endeavours. In fact, once the five intertwined stories start to unfold — and a particularly catchy song about the repressed desire for ass plays out in its entirety (a song sung by a faceless montage of imagery, not unlike dreams where facial identity can change on a whim) — it becomes clear that the titular room is, in fact, the vagina.
Though Guy Maddin, with his oblique narratives and tendency to meld images from different eras of film, is often categorized as erudite, having only an art house appeal to cineastes, his hazy dreamscapes are often driven by prurience. This latest exercise in stylistic indulgence — each sub-story (including one about Karine Vanasse's inner-child from within the fractured pelvis of Caroline Dhavernas) adheres to a weathered and distorted variation of different styles of cinema from different decades — is a persisting psychological tapestry of male desire and guilt. The female form is fetishized and objectified, often being the instigator of conflict in every male character's trajectory (even if they are just metaphorical sperm within an underwater phallus), which is particularly telling, considering that images of the ailing mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a repeated visual gimmick.
Interestingly, despite the seemingly random series of disconnected happenings, there's a self-awareness and a brilliant sense of humour about it all. While The Forbidden Room is ostensibly a filmed dream analysis of male sexual development, the blend of gags about slumberland clichés and the single-minded nature of male desire grounds this piecemeal tapestry. Maddin and Johnson consistently step in to remind us of the connections between these stories and their particular hybrid of psychological association and bizarre logic.
And while the Canadian auteur and his collaborator are successful in making the sort of film that we often feel we've watched in our dreams, it does go on too long. Their style and, in particular, their humour propel the first part of The Forbidden Room quite effectively, but after a while it does start to wear thin. This is in part due to the fleeting nature of the experiment (the novelty wears off) and the limited effect of later sequences (Matthieu Almaric's decision to switch bodies with a butler (Udo Kier), for example). Some of the gags take too long to play out, and some of the references (Nosferatu, for example) are ill placed.
Still, the experience of this intricately structured and styled psychological comedy is quite unique. Despite the refusal to embrace narrative norms or tropes, there's enough eerie familiarity to generate emotional response, whether it be sheer laughter and enjoyment or a fizzy sense of disorientation. At the very least, the fact that the entire cast is, or speaks, French is something to consider when trying to interpret the onslaught of fantastical imagery unfolding. (Mongrel Media)