Period homages or allusions to Hollywood’s past can be diminished without a new perspective to contextualize them. This is to say, reviving a given style can be limiting without some novel approach to invigorate the attempt. A twitchy grab-bag of colorful visuals and narrative digressions, Evan Johnson and Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room burrows deep into early 20th century cinema, but its interested primarily in maintaining its stream of anachronistic lunacy. One grows accustomed to its herky-jerky editing style and lurching pace, established in the film’s schizophrenic opening credits which offer up a patchwork of aesthetic approaches, and while many images that follow are striking, the ideas and intellectual provocations necessary to justify the chaos do not amount to enough substance to carry the film. As a result, its glaringly digital, faux-celluloid image filters and choppy, flickering cuts — gestures to a bygone era Maddin has spent his career replicating — prove a one-dimensional viewing experience replete with ironic distance but lacking humanity. The movie operates according to dream logic, its narrative loosely formed around the inner projections of two primary characters: dozing Margot (Clara Furey) and lumberjack-ish Cesare (Roy Dupuis). It’s fun to play along as one silent-film-inspired fragment burrows into the next, trailing an object or person’s explorative movement or bodily function (bathing, ass-gazing, corpse-stripping, mustaches). Indeed, Johnson and Maddin map the film’s structure on a path of ever-deepening subconsciousness, but we never feel as if their human insights are gaining in profundity. Similarly, the of-an-era title cards suffocate the filmmakers’ visual imagination; they are cleverly written, straddling a line between outsized absurdism and esoteric obscurity, but they overwhelm both in sheer number and in the sneaking feeling they’re compensating for something missing elsewhere. Johnson and Maddin don’t find the right balance between the images and the text, and it can feel as though one’s interrupting the other rather than working in tandem.
These segments fail to amount to more than the sum of their parts — imaginatively crafted but lacking a coalescing greater purpose or vision.
The Forbidden Room is absent the autobiographical specificity that made Maddin’s My Winnipeg rich and resonant — in that 2008 film, the visual and linear impressionism are a deployment device for memory and a scathing, unyielding sense of self-reflection that feels honest while still formally one-of-a-kind. That movie is about its maker’s hometown, and its tangential sense of direction is comparable to Forbidden Room, but its personal qualities ground it in an emotional center to couch Maddin’s whimsy. My Winnipeg’s own tonal ventures into comedy-horror encroach on the nucleus of human vulnerability, braving truly raw self-exploration, interlacing the filmmaker’s strange, sometimes contradictory memories with his nightmarish fears and imagination. In Forbidden Room, these generic tools are often pointed toward a broader, gender-based critique: men (almost all white, straight, self-righteous) are mocked throughout, portraying their foolish ambitions to rescue women and explore — and thus claim — new territories, in addition to their pissing-contest group games and cathartic, chanting rituals (the vignettes detailing competitive bladder-slapping and finger-snapping, among other things, remind me of Monty Python). In other segments, Johnson and Maddin position the men as weak figures all-too susceptible to the influence of cults and monstrous transformation. In one, Dr. Deng (Paul Ahmarani), a surgeon at Oracle Bones Hospital in the process of reconstructing a woman’s skeletal structure, begins to fall in love with his patient, but before he can properly vacation with her, he’s captured by a cult and with little persuasion falls under their spell. This commentary is almost always delivered in the guise of a joke. Like the film, though, these segments fail to amount to more than the sum of their parts — imaginatively crafted but lacking a coalescing greater purpose or vision. Albeit skillful, The Forbidden Room is an exercise in cinematic fetishism whose circular threads (trips leading nowhere but a conclusive parade of explosions) illuminate its homage-paying as an act of self-congratulation. Ultimately, this anthology of hallucinatory deconstruction exists as a flight of experimental fancy that, while diverting for cinephiles, is not ultimately moving or thematically complex.