First published (in a shorter version) by Little White Lies
“Hello, I’m Marv,” a white-haired, bespectacled man (Louis Negin) says direct to camera, his half-open robe hanging at a louche angle over his otherwise naked body, near the beginning of Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room. “Today we’re going to discuss baths.”
They are worth discussing. For as we lie in the bathtub, there is a collision of grime and cleanliness, of expiatory purification and bare-assed sexuality. The natural stench of our body’s odours and emissions is gradually wiped by the soap’s headily exotic perfumes. As we wash away the accrued film of smut and filth, we melt in the moist warmth, our mind drifts, and we are remade, becoming a refreshed double of our dirtier selves, ready to face the world, or perhaps even a lover – who, if we are lucky, has similarly washed, in preparation to get sweaty and soiled all over again.
The Forbidden Room is not really about baths – but still, as Marv’s lessons (and dirty jokes) leak into the film’s fluid textures and watery depths, its foul innuendos and excursive (brain)washings, viewers are likely to find themselves fully immersed in all the Maddin madness. If the opening credits intermix old-world title sequences from multiple stories though unstable celluloid-like media that burn, melt and fray around the edges, all this is a fitting prelude to the mind-bending labyrinth of impossibly interpolated tales and diabolical digressions that follows. The painted backdrops, the vaseline-smeared lenses, the tinted images, the overwrought gestural performances, the hyperbolic score, the endless succession of sensationalist, bizarre and often lewd intertitles – these retro stylings have become the signature of Maddin’s work, and here they are the gooey glue that beautifully, if barely, holds together his polydiegetic free associations. It is as though random episodes from different 1930s serial melodramas were sent swirling together down the same plughole, in a descending spiral of dizzyingly lost connections and bent plumbing – like Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) reinvented as hornily fetishistic hallucination by someone who has gone heavy on the bath salts.
It is not so much that there is no narrative – on the contrary, there is a surfeit of stories here, each unnervingly odd in its own right and all linked together by a desultory logic that belongs to a dream – or at least to steamy, sudsy reverie. In the middle of one story about (ooh-er) seamen “TRAPPED!” (as a hyperbolic intertitle has it) in their submarine “the SS Plunger” and forced to survive off the pockets of oxygen in their flapjacks, the mysterious lumberjack Cesare (Roy Dupuis) mysteriously drops in, and tells the desperate crew, in search of their missing captain, the parallel story of his own quest to rescue his beloved Margot (Clara Furey) from her wild abductors the Red Wolves. Except that Margot, afflicted with amnesia, seems to be hindering as much as helping Cesare’s efforts, and has soon escaped into another story involving her other (forgotten) life as a flowergirl and singer in a jungle nightclub, where a vampiric aswang (yes, Maddin is certainly aware of the double-entendre in the name) pursues her soul. Meanwhile the club’s crooner sings a song (‘The Final DerriÃ¨re’) about a man (Udo Kier) who succumbs to multiple rounds of brain surgery in a flawed attempt to overcome his carnal obsession with people’s posteriors.
Margot is also somehow involved in yet another story (imagined by the submarine’s crewmen) where an aviatrix, mistaken for a squid thief, risks being sacrificed to an active volcano (variously spelt ‘vulcano’ and ‘valcano’ in intertitles) – and her amnesia and fragmented sense of identity is shared by viewers struggling to remember just how they got to any point in the unfolding eruptionÂ of stories. Soon there are more narratives involving randy doctors, bizarre insurance scams, redeemed escapees, insane train trips from Germany direct to Colombia, doppelgÃ¤ngers, deities, devils, drugs and the dead. By the time we are witnessing tales that are framed as the dreams of a corpse’s moustache, retracing ours steps back to the beginning seems well nigh impossible – yet Maddin produces not just one ending, but a valcanic explosion of multiple ‘climaxes’ to every story in the film and even to some that are not in it.
The result is certainly full of “boggling puzzlements”, but also of ideas and invention, of errant eros and unfathomable (if not strictly bottomless) hilarity. So sit back, unwind, and lose yourself to this transglobal tub-thumping oneiro-epic bathtime of the psyche – for some good, if questionably clean, fun. The Forbidden Room unlocks that secret, hidden place in our subconscious that only true cinema can reach – and gives it a thorough sponging, from, as Marv puts it, the armpits to the genital area. ‘Cathartic’ barely begins to cover this film’s effect on the viewer, but Maddin and JohnsonÂ have crafted an aqueous oddity that is also a pure, bubbly joy.