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Forbidden Room, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A Frankenstein miracle."
5 stars

Given that "The Forbidden Room" wasn't even really supposed to be a movie, you have to say it turned out pretty well. Conceived as a two-part multimedia project - the first half live "seances" where Guy Maddin and the day's cast would recreate a lost film, the second a website that mixed and matched the results - the feature was added to the project even as the number of seances were cut, forcing Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson to Frankenstein together something a little less random than intended, but still a wonderfully singular mess.

Frankenstein is a fair metaphor for this movie in a couple of ways; not only are the filmmakers trying to sew the parts of various dead films together and reanimate them, but the novel itself is perhaps the most enduring nested narrative in literature, though few of its cinematic adaptations preserve the multiple-narrator, flashback-within-a-flashback structure. Maddin and his collaborators go kind of nuts with this, though, using common actors and other more dubious methods to assemble seventeen recreations into something that resembles a single work, at one point submerging the audience nine layers in an ocean of flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies.

The surprising thing, then, may be just how effective many of these little vignettes are. The audience enters them in absurd ways and often playing as parody, there is nevertheless something genuine to many of the stories that keeps them from just seeming like mockery of early 20th century film. Consider the segment introduced as the dreams of mustache hairs trimmed from a dying man (Udo Kier), which features his goat returning for a third "final, final, final" farewell and a story of his son (Vasco Bailly-Gentaud) gluing those hairs to his face to fill his blind mother (Maria de Madeiros) into thinking her distant husband is still around despite him seeming to enjoy his death more than his marriage. It's ridiculous on the face but genuine in its underlying cruelty. Several levels further up, a "Saplingjack" (Roy Dupuis) attempting to rescue the local beauty (Clara Furey) from a gang of bandits is an entertaining serial-style adventure that actually becomes more intriguing for its connections to the stories above and below it.

Recapturing the style of silent films is something Maddin has been doing for a while, and though these lousy films are not recreated as silents, he'll still throw in intertitles repeating dialogue, as well as ones that establish settings or making the actor playing a character. Often, there's a sort of instability to them, flickering between one style and another (especially during the opening credits), almost as if, this many levels deep into dreams and memories, reality is even more undetermined. That's the impression given by some of the visual effects that Evan Johnson, his brother Galen (the film's production designer), and the rest of the crew create to simulate decaying film for this all-digital production: The picture seems to melt and distort, but it's not just the medium - it's also the world.

It makes the movie somewhat exhausting to watch - there will almost inevitably come a point where the viewer suffers a sort of stack overflow and losses tall of just how it got to a certain story, or which minimalist color scheme goes with which. That sense of being adrift is deliberate - given the amount of times amnesia recurs as a plot device, the characters are often just as much at sea - but the filmmakers do an impressive job of managing both the perception and the reality of it. As random as going down a level can sometimes seem, we seldom re-ascend without some feeling of satisfaction, and no matter how surreal things may get, there's always a point to what's going on in the local frame of reference.

It's also worth noting that, for as peculiar as Maddin's aesthetics can often be and the further eccentricity of the original project, it's quite a nice-looking movie that attracted some impressive talent in both Paris and Montreal. In addition to those listed earlier, there are appearances by Caroline Dhavernas, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, and many more. And while a fair amount of effort has gone into "distressing" the the print, it seldom seems to be done without purpose.

I'm something of a mark for the things Guy Maddin loves, even if not always for the avant-garde way he expresses that love - especially when, in this case, he makes his longest feature in a deliberate effort to exhaust the audience. It works, though - "The Forbidden Room" may play best to an audience full of people fascinated by early cinema and how much is lost, but assembles its resurrected works in a way that would be fascinating even without that gimmick, while still doing a fantastic job of existing in the moment.

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originally posted: 11/18/15 11:52:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 New York Film Festival For more in the 2015 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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  07-Oct-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2016



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