An uncategorisable rummage through Guy Maddin's weird and wonderful cabinet of personal memories.
In ‘The Numskulls’, Malcolm Judge’s comic strip from The Beano, the cranium of Edd Case is pictured amusingly as a cross-cut of a house containing a number of characters with comically competing agendas. The strip may not be referenced directly by Winnipeg’s finest filmmaker, Guy Maddin – director of Tales from the Gimli Hospital, The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg – but it provides a major clue as to the antic goings-on in his mesmerising new work, Keyhole.
As does the story of Homer’s returning hero, Ulysses, which the wacky, inspired and slyly mischievous Canadian filmmaker has publicly quoted as the inspiration for his most recent and frankly uncategorisable rummage through the weird and wonderful cabinet of his personal memories, cinephile obsessions and ludic psycho- sexual fascinations.
In Keyhole, the Ulysses figure is played by sometime action hero Jason Patric, head of an outfit of '30s/'40s gangsters who, one dark and stormy night, fight their way not out of but into this no-nonsense desperado’s dank, police-surrounded family home. "Everyone who has been killed, stand facing the wall!" Ulysses orders the melée of fractious, gun-toting no-gooders, prostitutes, familial hostages and drowned psychics, announcing their presumed status as mere ghostly apparitions before engaging on his film-long quest to reunite with his wife Hyacinth (long-term Maddin collaborator Isabella Rossellini), who is locked-away in an upstairs room with his naked, chained-up father, Calypso (Louis Negin).
As a surreal spectacle, Keyhole, with its penis-invaded walls, fetishistic paraphernalia and bicycle-powered Heath Robinson torture instruments, feels closer in spirit to the silent, black-and-white provocations of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1930 L’Âge d’Or than it does to the nightmare modernism of David Lynch.
Its claustrophobia echoes that of magical puppeteer Jan Švankmajer, just as its sexual trauma, invocations (“Remember me! Remember me!” Calypso chants) and camp excess bring to mind the work of Kenneth Anger. The film’s monochrome evocation of the mist-shrouded tradition of period ‘haunted house’ movies also resurrects the delirium and sense of eerie possession elicited by low-budget maestro, Val Lewton.
But if Keyhole is Maddin’s attempt at creating what he calls ‘pure narrative cinema’, he’s clearly having a laugh. Keyhole’s only logic is dream logic – or nightmare logic – which would require a psychoanalyst, not a film critic, to interpret. But it does have a trajectory. Through it all, Maddin, in his idiosyncratic combinations of sound and image, and his near-drowned immersion in the miasma of our (often unconscious) collective filmic memory, does manage to communicate some magical sense of a genuine emotional journey: a path, maybe, from the unquiet chaos of conflicting memory to the calmer waters of reconciliation.
It’s true that newcomers to Maddin’s work may not find Keyhole the easiest introduction to his oddball sensibility, but rest assured: established fans will no doubt find it equally perplexing but eventually rewarding. Keyhole could be a film where death has no dominion.
Typical of Maddin, his latest project, Spiritismes, which began at the Pompidou Centre in February 2012, is another resurrectionist undertaking, wherein he and his team have set out to remove the shrouds from 100 world filmmakers – from Wilder to Mizoguchi, Dovzhenko to Vigo – by re-creating and filming their ‘lost’ or stillborn films. They could be fun – or should that be uncanny?
Winnipeg’s mischievous maverick returns.
Totally idiosyncratic, admirably dense, utterly baffling.
A bravura journey into a noirish nightmare world and a lock that even paid-up Maddinites won’t be able to pick on a single viewing.