The Forbidden Room (2015)
Written by Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk, & Guy Maddin
Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
A bespectacled man hosts an aged and worn instructional film on how to take a bath. After explaining the opening procedures, the camera dives beneath the murky water, and we see a submarine float by. We cut to inside the submarine where the crew is in dire circumstances. They carry onboard an incredibly volatile substance that, if they were to surface, would combust due to air pressure killing them all. They find a portal in one of the dank, humid chambers that should lead them out into the waters, allowing them to abandon ship and swim to the surface. Instead, when they open a door, a lumberjack soaked to the bone tumbles forward. He begins to tell the tale of his quest to save a maiden from a band of cave-dwelling barbarians only to find the maiden is their den mother. In her sleep, the den mother dreams of another life, as a noir nightclub singer…and so on and so on. The Forbidden Room is a Matryoshka doll of short films, one nested within the other, moving up and down the ladder of stories until they become intertwined and lost within each other.
A film like this is only possible with the unique and visionary mind of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Born in Winnipeg in the late 1950s, Maddin is a sort of David Lynch with a very Canadian bent and love of early cinema (think 1920s and 30s). His films typically have a weathered grain about them, with low-quality sound, often using the recording devices of this long ago period of cinema. My Winnipeg is his first film to garner the acclaim from a wider audience, but many of his pictures have become well received by the art house film community: Tales of the Gimli Hospital, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, The Saddest Music in the World, and more. I went through a period of consuming what Maddin was available to me during my post-collegiate unemployment phase. Watching his movies always evokes a very autumnal/wintery melancholy, a bittersweet nostalgia which I suspect the director would be thrilled with.
The Forbidden Room feels very playful against the somberness that Maddin’s work can often evoke. The very narrative structure is a cue that playfulness is going to be a common theme throughout. He also touches on cinema tropes: the aforementioned nightclub noir, an exotic explorer’s journey to an island on the verge of volcanic apocalypse, cursed statues passed down through aristocratic families. There is even a mustache that posthumously adorns the young son of a murder victim and grants him the rights of man of the house. One story features a Machiavellian psychiatrist employing an army of skeleton women to carry out his terrible machinations.
The Forbidden Room is less a film about character or plot than it is about the pure art of storytelling. Maddin has always loved showing his hand through the use of obviously artificial sets and overly dramatic acting styles. It is likely the most narratively complex movie you could see on Netflix and can be a bit exhausting trying to hold onto the dozens of story threads that are woven in and out of. Rather than trying to think logically, a viewer will need to adopt a mindset of dream logic, like when viewing Eraserhead or other Lynch films. This is not our world, this is a world with its own sense of illogic, and we are meant to be carried away rather than fight against the current.