Early cinema was nothing if not volatile. Those who viewed the medium as a corrupting and infernal influence would surely have felt vindicated by the extreme flammability of celluloid. “Forgotten titles were left to moulder in back rooms and storage cupboards, where they sometimes took their revenge by bursting into flames,” writes Matthew Sweet in Shepperton Babylon, a book about British cinema from the silents to the 1970s. The Forbidden Room incorporates that instability into its texture and meaning. The tinted, corroded images ripple, pulsate and disintegrate. They burn up, then reconfigure as something else entirely. The surface of the movie is liquid; the actors seem to be drifting in an ocean of photographic developer fluid.
So it’s surely no accident that the connective tissue between the 30 or so stories and sketches featured in the film is the tale of a submarine marooned at the bottom of the sea. The stranded crew feast on flapjacks full of air pockets that will double their oxygen intake.
That detail alone should provide fair warning of the concentrated dottiness typical of the Canadian avant-garde film-maker Guy Maddin. He is also responsible for The Saddest Music in the World, starring Isabella Rossellini as an amputee whose glass legs are filled with beer, and My Winnipeg, a straight-faced fantasy in which Maddin asserts that his home city has a hidden network of roads, or “black arteries”, which don’t appear on any known map.
In The Forbidden Room, he and his co-director Evan Johnson have boiled together cinematic offcuts to create a taster menu of films made in the first half of the 20th century, from melodramas and monster movies to public health warnings and instructional shorts such as How to Take a Bath.
Of course, it’s all a ruse. Nothing here was actually shot before 2012. Maddin took as his inspiration the titles of features from early cinema that are now irretrievably lost, and set about making his own miniature versions, some screamingly kitsch, others Gothic or sultry and noirish. Like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the film has been scarred, distressed and degraded, the soundtrack littered with a whole supermarket cereal aisle’s worth of snaps, crackles and pops.
At first, the movie operates on a Russian doll principle, with stories found nestling inside one another. The stranded submariners are startled when a strapping lumberjack strolls into their midst.
The focus then shifts from the clammy, plum-coloured claustrophobia of the sub to a snowy woodland that resembles a Pierre et Gilles Christmas card come to life. The lumberjack goes in search of Margot, his kidnapped sweetheart, eventually finding her, as we are informed by one of the countless title cards, in “the pink warm centre of the cave”. (If it’s double entendres you want, Maddin is always happy to give you one.)
Then we take a detour into Margot’s dreams, where she is an amnesiac flowergirl propositioned by a vampire-wolf hybrid known as an aswang. In this overheated atmosphere, it seems perfectly natural for the glam-synth duo Sparks to sing a ditty called “The Final Derrière” while the creepy, bug-eyed actor Udo Kier is repeatedly lobotomised to cure his backdoor fixation.
Shortly before the halfway point, the connections between the stories become more tenuous and arbitrary. While this makes a certain symbolic sense, with the structure rotting away along with the images, the film is less satisfying once the scenes start to be thrown together any old how.
If it is ultimately a lucky dip, at least the treats still outweigh the filler. Mathieu Amalric pops up as a man whose apartment is also an elevator. He murders his butler (Kier again) and attaches the dead man’s moustache to his own upper lip. We then see the poignant dreams of the stolen facial hair. It isn’t only lack of space that prevents me from explaining further. I’m not even sure I can.
There is hardly room to mention the Squid Thief, or the severe case of pan-fallopian amnesia, though it’s interesting to note how often the subject of amnesia in general comes up, given that the whole film came out of a desire not to forget, but to reclaim and revive. In that respect, this is a secular work with a strong sense of the afterlife. The face of Charlotte Rampling is the nearest thing it has to an omniscient deity. Drifting in and out of focus throughout the picture, she looms austerely over this magical, garish ragbag like a Mount Rushmore president at a jumble sale.
The Forbidden Room (12A) is directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires