Machine guns judder, the screen flashes with black-and-white images of gangsters in fedoras fighting for their lives. Wait? Is this a Guy Maddin film or some lost Warner Bros. gangster flick from The Public Enemy era? The gangsters break into a ramshackle house as a storm rages outside. Their leader is Ulysses Pick (as in a lock pick), played by Jason Patric, virile and confident, spitting out tough-guy lines like: “This kind of weather stirs me up. Man’s weather.”
Ulysses wants to count the casualties so he asks anyone who’s dead to go and face the wall. Several of the men oblige. Yes, we are in a Guy Maddin movie after all.
In Keyhole, the gangsters are in the kitchen, the ghosts are in the hallways and upstairs rooms. It’s a dream reverie of gangster drama, Gothic fantasy and Greek mythology. What’s it about? The question is like asking what a dream is about. It could most easily be interpreted as a fable about marital breakdown and the fight for reconciliation with the past. The surface is archetypal, absurd and delirious, shot in crisp black and white (Maddin’s first use of digital cameras) and, a couple of times, bursting into colourful life.
On another level, this work, commissioned for the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, is conceptual, an exercise in repeatedly frustrated narrative closure, which makes for a repeatedly intriguing, repeatedly frustrating, exercise: A mystery with no solution.
Like Maddin’s melancholic and relatively more conventional My Winnipeg, Keyhole is about a memory house, but one that is even more fragmented, mythical and elusive.
The first scenes resemble a different “key” movie, John Huston’s 1948 film noir, Key Largo, in which gangsters and their hostages are holed up together during a violent storm. Homeric allusions abound. Ulysses is carrying a blind and drowned, yet still alive, young woman named Denny (Brooke Palsson). Denny? Could she be Danae, the princess who was set at sea with her infant in a wooden chest.
Then there’s a naked old man (Louis Negin), who is chained to a bed and who serves as the movie’s occasional narrator, periodically intoning “Remember, Ulysses.” The bed he is chained to belongs to his daughter Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who is Ulysses’s estranged wife. Her lover Chang stands in the shadows.
No, that can’t be right. Ulysses’s Calypso was a seductive nymph and Chang is clearly an intruder. Perhaps then it’s a Gothic phantasmagoria, with ghosts and a bog in the courtyard where things are buried. The living, the long dead and the recently dead walk, float or are carried through the same corridors, and some of the living don’t know they’re dead.
Throughout it all, Ulysses keeps trying to get up the stairs, through the rooms filled with family memories, turning back clocks and trying to enter his wife’s bedroom door. There are echoes of James Joyce’s modern domestic Ulysses here, a bit of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (anatomical parts as decorative sconces) and a whole lot of Guy Maddin’s and co-writer George Toles’s sexual-mechanical fascinations that disrupt the gloom with rude jokes.
“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul,” wrote Carl Jung, an old-fashioned idea that doesn’t entirely go away, as long as there are stories and films that lead us to the threshold.
- Directed by Guy Maddin
- Written by George Toles and Guy Maddin
- Starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars