NYFF Review: The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)

Guy Maddin may be one of the most unique and unquantifiable auteurs of importance working today. Not easily placed in a genre, he may not always please the art house or highbrow crowd. Instead, he and his newest film may be a mental boon for lovers of the avant-garde. He and his co-director Evan Johnson take the experimentation to a max in their newest film that is dedicated to dreams and fantasies, The Forbidden Room.

Structurally, The Forbidden Room is unlike anything Maddin has done before. Using a framework of nested narrative, the directors have created a film that employs dozens of smaller plot lines pulled from lost films and features that never made it to the screen or print. The duo use the plots in these lost films to recreate minutes from each forgotten story and tie them into the others with the nested narrative structure. The best way to explain this format is to compare it to a Russian babushka doll, in which smaller dolls fit inside the larger dolls consecutively. Furthermore, visually the film is very dreamlike, with scenes that are at times similar to those of French animator Michel Ocelot. It’s a distinct visual style though, one in which many title cards and character introductions are included.

The story starts off with a man talking about how to take a bath; this segment bookmarks the film. Afterwards we are introduced to the main story, the tale of a submarine crew that is running out of air. Inside this narrative come all the other stories of the film, including the tales of a sapling jack woodsman, Geraldine Chaplin cracking a whip, the vampire Asiang, what happens when the hairs of a moustache survive their owner, and a bone doctor. These unusual and quite hilarious stories all tie in with each other in a continuing narrative. At the end of the film, there is a major climactic point when Maddin and Johnson pull the narrative back to the submarine crew.

Unlike most films, which are passive experiences for the audience, The Forbidden Room actively engages the viewer because of the nested narrative structure. At points this can feel tiring, but exhilarating. By the time the major climactic point of the film hits, it can be exhausting as the climactic peak creates a sense of suffocation. This also causes a kind of amnesia and bewilderment within the film, where not all story lines can easily be remembered during the viewing process.

Interestingly enough, the climactic peak, labeled the “Book of Climaxes,” is also a way for Maddin and Johnson to insert a sexual theme into the film which builds upon the theme of dream imagery. The climax can be viewed as a sexual pull-out from all the stories. Likewise, many of the story segments feature dreams and nightmares, consisting of plot lines that include sex, doctors removing butts from human bodies, and femme fatales whom men are always trying to help or seduce. Another major moment is one in which a native tribe sacrifices humans to a volcano, an easy symbol, as the volcano represents human physicality and sexual movement. Often dreams are based upon sexual fantasy and for the male characters of the film, these desires appear in dreams and hallucinations.

The Forbidden Room runs for about two hours. Many actors play multiple characters (enhancing the idea of a dream) that come from Guy Maddin’s stock collection, including the aforementioned Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Louis Negin, and Mathieu Amalric. Also present are many newer actors who joined the immense cast, such as the luminous Clara Furey, who plays the femme fatale role of Margot. Ultimately, Maddin and Johnson’s work is unlike any other viewing experience created for a feature-length film. However, Maddin’s film can become exhausting, with much detailed participation required from the viewer. It is one of the most important films to see this year, but it may not be the most satisfactory.