Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room has been described as a series of nested movies, but I don’t think that description is accurate. “Nested” seems more about neat structure to me, the way that Matryoshka dolls fit neatly (or neat enough) one inside the other from largest to smallest. There’s little about The Forbidden Room that’s neatly nested.
The best description for The Forbidden Room might be a mulligan stew, a dish that communities of hobos made by putting whatever ingredients they have in a pot and cooking them together. The flavors blend, and yet discrete chunks of this or that are visible in each helping.
A mulligan stew makes more sense for this eccentric and often absurdly hilarious movie, which pays tribute to the molten dream.
The Forbidden Room
Directors: Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
Release Date: October 7, 2015 (limited)
The Forbidden Room is a movie parody made of multiple movies tossed together, all in the form of an out-of-control lucid dream. There’s a submarine thriller in which doomed seamen are running out of air and must figure out how to surface without blowing up. (They’re hauling explosive jelly, you see.) One of the crewmen, coming out from a portal in the sub, is also a woodsman from another movie who’s on a hypermasculine quest to save a woman from a group of rough and tumble feral group of cave dwellers. (Goofy feats of strength ensue.) But then we’re on an island with an active volcano, and then we’re experiencing the dream of a dying man’s mustache, and then we’re in a nightclub talking about Filipino vampires, and then we back and the sub, and then we’re on a train, and then we’re on a farm; and then, and then, and then. The breathless way an excited child tells a story–always, and then.
Oh, also material written by the poet John Ashbery shows up periodically in The Forbidden Room in the form of a quirky educational film on how you’re supposed to take a bath.
“Hoo boy. Who’s the wiseguy who put all the peyote buttons in the mulligan stew?”
With so much talk of “the molten dream” in the film, it’s as if we’re experiencing the dream of the volcano, or that the lava from this volcano is comprised of all these stories joined together from the stuff that comprises the ground; a mingling of film history and the collective unconscious. (“Hey! Who’s the mook that put the metaphorical lava in the mulligan stew?”) We may simply be walking through a series of half-formed ideas in Maddin’s head.
Moments of The Forbidden Room reminded me of listening to friends describe their dreams, and admittedly there were times in the film where inattention set in–sometimes a dream goes on too long that’s unengaging–but I would be snapped back into the molten dream by a shift in the narrative. It’s as if the adult mind is at odds with the child mind of the movie. In the former, the need to explore an idea to its deeper intellectual and aesthetic ends. In the latter, the rush of the enthused conjunction “and then” until the end of the story arrives. Both, however, wind up being discursive, and the further we get from the sub and its confined spaces and singular focus, the stranger and better things get.
(Did I mention the doomed submarine crew eats flapjacks for oxygen because of the air pockets?)
Maddin’s films tend to have a hand-made, analog quality to them, like My Winnipeg or Brand Upon the Brain. As sumptuous as the colors are in The Forbidden Room, it often doesn’t feel handmade or old-timey. That due to the digital cinematography and color manipulation. The grainy “silent film look” was done in post, and it can be inconsistent, even from shot to shot in the same segment. The distortions on the images similarly have a digital sheen, as one image morphs into the next; there are even digital snowflakes at one point, and I never realized how much I longed for the fake stuff shaken out of a box from above the frame. While I don’t mind digital cameras, there’s something about the look of the film that took me out of its attempt at creating a vivid and continuous dream made of old movies.
I also sensed a certain lack of distinction from certain movies to the next, which may have been a result of the digital shooting. The Ashbery educational film certainly look different from the sub movie, but at times the side movies seem to meld into each other–flavors blending together in the pot, multiple rocks now just a single lava flow. In some instances it’s fine since characters, actors, and flapjacks crisscross through the different subfilms of the main film. One of my favorite stretches of The Forbidden Room involved a murder and the dream of a mustache and the diary of a madman since the sections were so distinctly severed. Then again, this bit was neatly nested rather than molten, and I wonder if that says more about my taste than anything else.
For Maddin’s fans, The Forbidden Room should feel comfy and maddening at once, and there’s a lot to pick apart in this bowl of mulligan stew. Newcomers to Maddin might want to start with My Winnipeg and move on from there. Best to start in shallow and warm waters before jumping into an active volcano.