Skip to main content

Guy Maddin’s latest film, The Forbidden Room, opens this weekend in theatres in Toronto and Winnipeg.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Guy Maddin.

Such a great name, eh? Perfect, in fact, if Winnipeg's your home town and you're an auteur whose loopy, delirious cinema has been bewildering and enchanting the world for almost 30 years. Take the forename. Guy. Unfussy. Unpretentious. One syllable. What you call a guy when you're not calling him "man," "dude" or "buddy." The kind of name you got if you were the last of four siblings, born in a deep, dark prairie winter in the 1950s and your mom ran a beauty parlour and your dad was named Chas and managed a hockey team called the Maroons. And how about that surname? Mad 'un. Mad one. Mad din. Maddining. Madding. Maddin.

See, it all fits. Just as everything likely fits into the 119-minute running time of Maddin's latest, The Forbidden Room, opening this weekend in theatres in Toronto and Winnipeg. I say "likely" because The Forbidden Room is the kind of phantasmagoria you have to watch maybe 14 times to get a handle on its 15 or so narrative threads as well as its many and densely layered references to cinematic history and much else. Add Maddin's own manias and obsessions et voilà, you have one very rich stew that can only be described as Maddinesque.

Indeed, The Forbidden Room is probably the most Maddining of Maddin's 11 feature films. Which is saying something, as devotees of The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg will attest. Working with fellow Winnipegger (and his former pupil in film studies at the University of Manitoba) Evan Johnson as co-director and co-writer, Maddin's "little slogan" for the nearly four years it took to bring Forbidden to fruition was "too much is just enough."

"We intentionally wanted to leave people feeling washed up on a shore, having barely survived a pretty tempestuous narrative experience. And that is risky because that involves too much, that involves almost drowning people. It was something that required us to be counterintuitive the entire way."

An alert, engaged Maddin, who turns 60 early next year, made the remarks last month during an appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Forbidden Room, after a world premiere at Sundance in January, was making its Canadian debut. The feature's a companion of sorts to an interactive project, called Seances, that's expected to bow online on the National Film Board website some time early next year. Seances was conceived as an homage to lost silent films, real and imagined, of the 1920s and 30s, with Maddin and Johnson lensing more than 30 mini-features – Maddin calls them "units" – at venues such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Montreal's PHI Centre. As ever, Maddin did it using a collection of international performers that better-provisioned auteurs can only envy. Among them: Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Lewis Furey, Roy Dupuis, Maria de Medeiros – a dream cast, in short, for a decidedly dreamy, often nightmarish motion picture shot in hues of red, yellow and orange.

It's also damn funny. One wacky sequence (an instructional video on how to draw a bath) morphs into another (a sweaty crew aboard a decrepit submarine carrying a cargo of volatile "mysterious jelly" tries to keep oxygenated by sucking the air bubbles out of their breakfast pancakes) and another (a lumberjack, Sapling Jack by name, braves the dark woods of Schleswig-Holstein to save a beautiful maid from a clan of cavemen known as the Red Wolves) and another, and so on. "We easily could have reduced the number of units in the film and had something clock in at a tight 70 minutes," Maddin acknowledged. "But then, y'know, it wouldn't have been too much."

Yet even with this exhausting and exhaustive plenitude, at film's end the viewer senses Maddin and Johnson probably could have produced four or five Forbidden Rooms, each different from and longer than the one they made for official release. Maddin agreed. "We could've just kept cutting. And we did talk about that at one point. I know there are contracts signed with all the funders that promised the delivery of one feature and I know, from hearing, of mischievous filmmakers who delivered two low-budget features instead of one – this guy Bashar Shbib did it in the mid-eighties and basically has never been funded in Canada again – but we were thinking of making more features. It would have been very simple. I mean, it's all shot."

Maddin admitted there were times he "sagged" while making Forbidden Room and Seances. "But then Evan would pick me up. … And now it's all come back and I'm just as obsessive about film and story and their potential as I've ever been. Probably more so." He claims he no longer feels "shackled to the old-timey settings" or to the rich blacks and whites that have been such signatures in his three-decade career. "We can go anywhere and do anything now," he exulted, citing as fresh inspirations the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, whose six-hour Arabian Nights was a sensation at Cannes this spring, and the "fictional essay film" (of which his own My Winnipeg he considers an example).

The director's even in a positive frame about the film-viewing public. While always beloved by cinephiles, critics, scholars (he's a visiting lecturer in visual and environmental studies at Harvard this fall) and film-festival programmers, Maddin's quirky aesthetic has made him mostly anathema to the Paul Blart: Mall Cop crowd. But now? "I think the general public's viewing habits are changing," he said. "I was a little disappointed when I started out how slowly the movie-viewing public adjusted to the potential of what film was. In my 20s, I was an obsessive music collector; I thought basement bands were the most exciting thing – people just picked up an instrument and started to play with a lot of feeling. I felt with that zeitgeist there'd be the filmmaking equivalent to that, y'know? But that time didn't come until about 30 years later. I remember seeing all the little basement-band people – these really cool, beautiful hipsters – going to my movies in the eighties and early nineties, and they were the first people to walk out! And I'd be saying, 'Hey, I'm just making the filmic analogue to your music.'

"Now," he went on, "people are watching all sorts of things. The world has shifted and we're syncing up."

Has he ever thought of temporarily abandoning the Guy Maddin "kookiness" and going, well, mainstream, just as the great avant-garde jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane famously did in 1963 by recording two acclaimed albums of ballads and standards?

"Oh, yeah, I've thought of it often," Maddin replied. "I just can't do it. It's not that I can't do it on principle; I just am technically not capable of doing it." But who knows? He remains, he claims, "a slow but unstoppable learner" in the fields of filmdom. "I still feel that even though I'm 59, I'm like at about age 34 in a real hustling man's filmmaking career. So I feel there are lots of pictures to go. I just have to live long enough to make them."

The Forbidden Room opens Friday in Toronto and Winnipeg, Oct. 16 in Vancouver, Oct. 23 in Montreal, and other cities throughout the fall.

Interact with The Globe