The latest film from the so-called Sage of Winnipeg, Guy Maddin, sounded fascinating from the first reviews I read. We finally caught up with it at the six-row Studio in the National Film Theatre. "Well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back" said Michael, and it is very definitely a movie that will divide viewers into two camps -- with the majority, I suspect, joining Michael who found it a pretentious and nearly unwatchable mishmash.
I, however, really liked it despite its bum-numbing length -- and there can be no argument that it is totally unlike any other film that gets a cinema release. Maddin's output has always verged on the decidedly quirky, often with the feel of silent cinema, normally focussing on complicated but unsuccessful romances, and with not very subtle motifs of sexual repression. I've not seen all of his output, but my reaction has wavered between those which left me bemused like "Archangel" (1990) and "Careful" (1992) and those which I found brilliant, like "Dracula, Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002) and "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003).
For the last decade, Maddin has been more involved in installations and art projects. Developed from a series of short scenes performed before the public in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal, the fifteen or so 'stories' were edited together into overlapping and fragmented circles to create the final film. Inspired by 'lost' films and abandoned projects, the movie takes its title from the definitely lost 1914 short film from Canadian-born director Allan Dwan (who went on to have a distinguished Hollywood career). The overall feel of this movie is one of dream-like images stitched into a hallucinogenic wash of colour with absolutely no linear coherence, and featuring such weirdnesses as a Filipino vampire, a cult of lycanthropes, stolen squids, a mid-air Zeppelin collision, and a scantily clad amnesiac young heroine who wanders aimlessly through the proceedings. In addition, some footage is shot to resemble deteriorating nitrate stock, reminding one of the really unwatchable documentary "Decasia" (2002).
Add to this the 420 kitschy intertitles in this non-silent movie and one is inundated with something resembling sensory overload. The enormous cast, many of whom play multiple parts, and most of whom are credited with a title card when they first appear, seem to be having enormous fun; the list includes such well-known names as Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and Elina Lowensohn, as well as a number of Maddin regulars like Louis Negin and Roy Dupuis. Parts of the movie were actually laugh-out-loud funny, like initiation rites of 'offal-piling' and characters regressing into amoeba-like monsters, and most of it was quiet-smile amusing.
However first and foremost the film which the director himself has described as a "basically ectoplasmic splooge" seems to be one long metaphor for the orgasm. From the gnarly seamen trapped in their tube-like submarine whom we continue to revisit as they plot their escape and the many quests through rosy pink caves, the movie ends with a series of explosive climaxes. The viewer too experiences a sense of release that this very odd viewing experience has actually come to an end.
I imagine it would take multiple viewings to absorb everything that Maddin has thrown into his wizard's brew and I don't know that I could stand doing this again on anything less than a large screen. Yet I can definitely recommend seeking out the film. You too might describe it as two hours that you can never retrieve, but they would be two hours of movie-making such as you have never before seen.