Do you believe in the power of pure befuddlement? If you do then prepare for some festive deranging because Guy Maddin’s latest film is entering theatres as a non-populist antidote to slightly sweeter seasonal fare. The Forbidden Room (2015) is a comic, mystical melodrama that will puzzle your socks off and then return them to you freshly laundered before they were even removed; a loose collection of partially-intersecting stories and vignettes shot in the style of early silent cinema, but glazed with a psychedelic glow.
More than anything else, watching it is like falling down successive rabbit holes in the mind of a delightfully precocious child. It’s frequently hilarious, but so free-wheeling and carefree that anything is possible: it has moments of genuine pathos, romance and dread, dotted in amongst its generalised silliness. Opening section ‘How to Take a Bath’ is a camp pastiche reminiscent of Beck’s ‘Mellow Gold’ era music videos; an elderly gentleman, bathrobe loosely draped about his person, instructs us on bathing technique and theory. (He returns throughout the film to offer jokes and other minor wisdoms.) Later storylines have a similar tone to some of Thomas Pynchon’s novels: combining popular science-fiction and film noir tropes with a joyously juvenile sense of play and absurdity.
Stories open up within stories, and digressions lead into further digressions. It’s too respectful to be parody, too strange to be comfortably compared with anything else; a bit like David Lynch trying to make a kid’s film, perhaps, but even that description doesn’t quite do justice to its sheer oddity. The entire film has an associative dreamlike quality and, thanks to it, those stories which introduce psycho-analysis and skewed logic really turn the mind-bending screw. Later stories concerning a ‘gardener boy’, surrogate child-father and mad husband trying to find his wife a good birthday present are comic and creepy in a way that is wholly distinctive. Dialogue occasionally flashes on screen: “Mother’s flapjacks have never been so frightening”. You could furnish several other films just using thirty minutes of these bizarre prompts and exclamations. The pace is so fast that it can leave you behind, but the experience of watching is so disorienting and novel that it hardly matters if you quite follow its more nuanced suggestions. To see it is not to understand it – but the world of squid theft and Aswang banana mutation it introduces you to will long stick in the memory.