Here’s what happens in the first thirty minutes of Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room:
A grey-haired man in a bathrobe discourses on the history of baths (“In the middle ages, they were called stews, because you had to be stewed to have one”), then proceeds to give us instructions on how to take one. (“Carefully insert your big toe in the water. This will tell you if it’s too hot or too cold.”)
As the camera closes in on the bubbles in the bath, we see a submarine, stranded deep underwater (“Forty fathoms deep, entombed in silence, hidden from God”) with four crew members and no captain. The sailors desperately try to extend their oxygen by breathing from the air pockets in the batter of their flapjacks. Then, they cry and argue over a case of depressurized explosive jelly which will ignite if they ascend to the surface.
Suddenly, a “never-before-seen woodsman” materializes in their submarine, covered in fresh water. He has no idea how he got there. Last thing he remembers, he was in a dark forest in “the blackest part of Schleswig-Holstein.” There, he and three other woodsmen — aspiring lumberjacks — were preparing to save a woman they all collectively loved, named Margot, from the clutches of a woodland gang known as the Red Wolves.
In his flashback, the woodsman infiltrates the Red Wolves, and pretends to want to join them. Their leader, “The Wolf,” demands he complete four trials as follows: Snapping fingers, offal piling, stone weighing, and “bladder slapping.” The woodsman triumphs at all four. But then Margot herself offers him four, more difficult trials. But before he can do them, everybody goes to sleep.
As Margot gyrates among a pile of slumbering Red Wolves, she “escapes… through the doorway of a dream” and finds herself working as a flowergirl in an elegant nightclub, where the men lounge in tuxes and women do exotic, native dances on stage. Margot herself sings a song about the jungle, but has no idea why she knows it. She doesn’t even know who she is. A man named Pancho yells at her for making him wait so long.
Then, an indistinct figure, made up of a rapidly flickering assortment of faces (he’s unseen and unnamed — there’s a blast of static on the soundtrack whenever anyone utters his name), gets on stage to sing about his obsession with butts. As he sings, we see Udo Kier walk the streets lusting after women’s derrieres — whenever he does so, there’s a brief flash of Geraldine Chaplin, as his “Master Passion,” screaming and whipping at him. As the song continues, he makes repeated visits to the doctor to have pieces of his brain removed (“A little bit off the top! A little bit off the top!”) in an effort to cure his insatiable longing for ass.
That’s minute 28, by my count. And it just gets weirder from there.
I have to be honest: When I first saw The Forbidden Room at Sundance earlier this year, at a screening littered with walkouts, I wasn’t ready for it. I loved much of what I saw, but Maddin’s gonzo classicist collages work better at shorter lengths for me. (His best film, My Winnipeg, is just 80 minutes long.) The mad, breakneck inventiveness can be both exhilarating and exhausting. So at 132 minutes, The Forbidden Room is what a five-hour passion project might be for any other director. The first time I saw it, at around minute 90, I briefly entertained the notion that the film would never end and that I would be trapped in that theater forever. I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t what Maddin and Johnson wanted me to feel. (If you fall asleep during this movie, how could you ever be entirely sure that you woke up?)
Since that Sundance viewing, I’ve found the film hard to shake. There’s not a ton of method to Maddin’s madness. He’s not so much a filmmaker of themes, as he is an artist who uses film as an outlet and a container for his restless, fevered imagination — like an abstract expressionist, only instead of dripping paintbrushes he has the collective dream of cinema, the memories, moods, and postures of silent movies and melodrama. He throws everything at you, and in The Forbidden Room, he throws it all faster than before, and for longer than before. You’re shell-shocked by the time you get out.
Is The Forbidden Room about anything? With its phantasmagoria of stranded sailors, teleporting woodsmen, amnesiac dancers, shape-shifting natives, bath historians, body-switching butlers, it may be even less narratively inclined than any previous Maddin film. Or maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s about storytelling, or the inability to do so. Each of those elements I noted earlier on feels like the beginning of its own story, and Maddin uses the machinery of narrative to jump from one to the next: First, via matching dissolve, then a mysterious apparition, then a flashback, then a dream, then a song — each transition sends us off in an entirely new direction. In effect, the film is a Chinese box of beginnings, like someone constantly clearing his throat to start a new tale before moving onto another one. It keeps going until it closes with a collection of endings; there’s an actual Book of Climaxes at the end. And throughout, the screen literally writhes: The images constantly waver and undulate and bubble, as if they’re about to melt, like everything could change in an instant. We talk about movies being dreamlike, but this is ridiculous. The Forbidden Room is often maddening, occasionally beautiful, and ultimately unforgettable.