The Forbidden Room ★★★★½

[9]

My capsule review from my TIFF Wavelengths coverage for MUBI:

If The Forbidden Room represents Maddin’s most substantial triumph since The Heart of the World, this could be because the new film is both an inversion and an elaboration on the earlier film’s methods. Where Maddin took a single story (an vaguely Soviet apocalyptic sci-fi lark crisscrossed with a fraternal love triangle) in Heart and condensed it through split-second montage, propulsive music, and exhortative title cards, The Forbidden Room ambles and digresses. Where Godard told us that his Weekend (1968) was “a film adrift in the cosmos,” The Forbidden Room is a film lost inside itself, a mise-en-abyme nightmare of discursive misdirection. Whereas earlier Maddin films have been perhaps a bit too besotted with the syntax of early silent cinema, here we are lodged inside the labyrinthine problematics of folklore and exaggeration, a Winchester Mystery House of storytelling in which windows can overlook vertiginous hallways and staircases may lead nowhere.

The Forbidden Room does not precisely mirror this architecture. Not all of its narrative byways are “dead ends,” although a few of them (the “volcano of justice,” or really the entire tale of the saplingjack vs. the Red Wolves) remain doggedly unresolved. But there is much more going on with the film’s overall armature than simply a nesting “Dutch doll” recursivity or a follow-the-link hypertext model. The titular room, after all, is onboard a submarine, and inasmuch as there is primary story or “throughline” to this unruly work, it pertains to this submerged craft and the four doomed seamen stranded within it. They are running out of oxygen, and their deadly payload (“explosive jelly”) will detonate should they attempt to rise to the surface. So as they bicker, panic, and drift into delirium, they move through the sub in search of the missing captain, his quarters being both off-limits and, bizarrely, near impossible to find.

Although this film inevitably calls to mind the meta-fictional orchestrations of Borges or Calvino, such a comparison severely misrepresents the utter anarchy of Maddin’s film. (Much of this due to the painterly style of Room, no doubt largely attributable to visual-effects whiz Johnson. This deepens Maddin’s customary chiaroscuro, providing an almost Turneresque quality.) Like the men in the submarine, The Forbidden Room has an overall mood of anxiety and despair, in the sense that we are asked to grapple with its heady delirium of character trajectories and stunted arcs, all the while searching in vain for some absent center, the organizing “captain” who is supposed to pull it all together. In its endless ruptures and disconnections, The Forbidden Room brings us up short, placing us back in that capsule where the image is a form of confinement, a shortness of breath.

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