Welcome to The Forbidden Room, an exhilarating slipstream of two-strip Technicolor havoc that feels like an exquisite corpse assembled from every leftover idea that filmmaker Guy Maddin has ever had. A dense quilt of nested scenes that were allegedly pulled from the cinema’s great abandoned films, The Forbidden Room never proves that Maddin is reanimating “real” lost projects, but how real can a film be if it was never shot?
Following a brief prologue in which poet John Ashbery expounds on the wonders of bathtubs, we’re deposited into the bowels of a rickety submarine, whose crew can’t bring to the surface because the change in pressure would detonate the slabs of explosive pink jelly they have aboard. Then it’s off to the mountains, where a burly woodsman is determined to rescue a local beauty from a clan of cave-dwelling savages. From there, the characters pile up faster than you can keep track of, The Forbidden Room exploring every conceivable corner (and several inconceivable ones) of its rifts and wrinkles, the film cohering into a constellation of narratives in which the connective tissue between stories is an illusion but the light they shine on each other is real as can be.
The Forbidden Room may (or may not) be inventing narratives from thin air, but whatever history these abandoned projects might have had is completely supplanted by the present Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) invents for them. These stories belong to him now. The Forbidden Room may forego the hypnotically autobiographical thrust of recent efforts like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain!, but it feels no less personal for it.
Maddin has never worked with such an enormous cast (Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, and Clara Furey represent just a fraction of the talent involved), but it’s Mathieu Amalric who seems to have the most fun. The actor gleefully indulges in Maddin’s pure and peerlessly florid sense of melodrama, which here becomes a mechanism for foolhardy and paranoid men to ruin their lives as they attempt to rescue, love, or murder the beautiful women who didn’t ask for their help.
For all of its innumerable pleasures, however, The Forbidden Room can feel like too much of a good thing—premiering at Sundance, Maddin’s latest plays like a robust film festival unto itself. Nevertheless, the stories in The Forbidden Room can be so rapturous because they point inward rather than out, spiraling down the drain of the tub toward a mutual core that is fun to look for but difficult to find. At a time when everyone is talking about the death of the movies, Guy Maddin proves that we can always bring them back to life.
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Cast and crew