'You're not as boring as I thought a Canadian would be," a colleague from Berlin informed me this week – and I'm doubtless not the first Canadian abroad to hear it. I was checking into the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where I've found myself drawn, on the world stage, to a trio of Canadian filmmakers enjoying a surprised renown. Travelling critics and local audiences alike are quite astonished: The movies are not as boring as many thought a Canadian film would be.
To begin with, there's Guy Maddin, way out on the radical frontier: Nearly 30 years after Tales from the Gimli Hospital appeared like a thunderbolt of ingenuity, the country's most distinctive voice continues to challenge and confound. His latest, The Forbidden Room, shimmered into Karlovy Vary's experimental "Imagina" sidebar after premiering to acclaim this January at Sundance. It's a big, manic, tour de force, sprawling and sublime, and the most exciting thing at the festival by far.
This is heartening news for Maddin fans. Brand Upon the Brain! and Keyhole, two recent, though decidedly minor efforts, suggested that the director's favoured style had run its course. (While My Winnipeg, an unconventional documentary, suggested another way forward altogether.) But no change was needed. Instead there was a massive expansion: The Forbidden Room is Guy Maddin supersized and turbo-charged, his singular vision blown up to ludicrous dimensions. How to account for this blue streak of inspiration? The film is, it should be noted, a collaboration, co-written and co-directed by Evan Johnson – though there is no mistaking the presiding author. Whatever the catalyst, Maddin seems committed to his trademark sensibility with renewed élan and vigour. It's a late-career quantum leap.
I'll spare you the pain of a garbled precis, but suffice it to say that The Forbidden Room concerns the exploits of harried woodsmen, an imperiled submarine crew, maniacs, murderers, quacks and, in the unimprovable description of an accompanying title card, "the skull-faced man and his skeletal gang of insurance defrauders," that even novelist Thomas Pynchon would envy. Fixtures of the international art house pop up to indulge in the lunacy, among them Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Roy Dupuis. A gleeful Mathieu Amalric at one point conspires to shower his wife with gifts lifted from his own living room – "identical copies," he explains to her, of his own belongings. ("Where are yours?" she asks, noticing the absence of the supposed originals. But, of course, they've been mysteriously stolen.) And Udo Kier, naturally, appears in multiple roles, the most amusing of which is a musical ode to the female posterior called Another Derrière.
Familiar Maddinisms abound: One is encouraged to delight in the splendour of exaggerated intertitles, silent-movie anachronisms and postproduction effects that render the look of the film in acid-trip hues. If all this sounds trying, I should clarify that The Forbidden Room is a crowd-pleaser – its ecstatic comedy proves too infectious for anyone to get bothered about inscrutability. It was the toast of Karlovy Vary. I couldn't even squeeze into a sizable public screening: The Monday matinee played to a full house.
Maddin wasn't the only Canadian to draw crowds: Hundreds flocked to the world premiere of Sonia Bonspille Boileau's debut feature Le dep on Sunday night, while on Tuesday morning, at the huge screening room of the opulent Grandhotel Pupp, a second public showing of François Péloquin's Le bruit des arbres attracted many more. Both went over exceedingly well, as far as I could gather from the enthusiasm of the postscreening Q&As.
Le dep is a family melodrama with a theatrical conceit. Its action unfolds over the course of a closing shift at a gas station in small-town Quebec. The high concept, Boileau explained after the film, was settled on for budgetary reasons – though the young director is skilled enough to turn a necessity into an asset. The film tells the story of a pair of Innu siblings doing their best to escape the trap of alcoholism and penury that, in their indigenous community, feels inevitable. It veers too far toward the overwrought, but it's encouraging to see an accomplished film by aboriginal filmmakers with aboriginal stars on the subject of aboriginal people. To see the film presented at a respected international festival, and to see it received warmly, is more encouraging still.
Les bruit des arbres, meanwhile, is less conventional than it initially appears. It seems like a coming-of-age story in the customary Sundance Labs fashion: Its hero, a working-class 17-year-old growing up in another obscure Quebec village, hangs around town smoking dope and building homemade potato guns, as one does. But the director, first-time feature filmmaker Péloquin, swiftly undermines the clichés that beleaguer the genre, sidestepping the sentiment of the late teenage years and opting for something more nuanced and truthful. Few life lessons are learned in Le bruit des arbres, and our hero's emotional journey wends into curlicues rather than proceeding along the movie-friendly upward arc. If there's a precedent here, it's to be found in domestic coming-of-age stories such as Nobody Waved Goodbye and Le chat dans le sac – in other words, in more Canadiana. It's something about the national character. Prepare to bore, and then do the opposite.