I entered the BFI IMAX, the largest and loudest screen in the United Kingdom, at 18:20. At a shade after 18:40, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room began. About two hours later I stumbled, disorientated, mumbling and drooling, onto the sandy banks of the Thames.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned; Guy Maddin himself had introduced the film, off-handedly joking that what we were about to see a) has the potential to induce aneurysms, b) that he’d be surprised if there was anyone left by the time it was finished and c) that he himself would only dare to watch the opening scenes before skedaddling backstage.
For those unfamiliar with Guy Maddin’s work, he’s an experimental filmmaker/installation artist with inclinations towards the silent/early talkie aesthetic. His plots often dive into the surreal and the metafictional, usually feeling as if they’re written according to alien rules of narrative. Personal favourites are his knottily beautiful Archangel (1990) and his evocative “docufantasia” portrait of his hometown, My Winnipeg (2008).
Nothing in those had prepared me though for what was to come in The Forbidden Room. Now, how to describe it? Well, how about a two hour long symbolic treatise on the importance of personal hygiene. A matroshka doll of faintly connected dreams. A bounding, messy leap through B-Movie pulp? The same spirit journey told several different ways. The product of an over-excited editor with attention deficit disorder. Maybe a philosophical LSD-koan?
All those are valid, though the best description I can manage is that this is like watching three or four different movies projected onto the screen at the same time. Maddin maniacally tosses in ingredient after ingredient, cranking up the heat until the audience is bug-eyed and drooling. The very fabric of the film itself appears to come to life: warping, quivering and throbbing as if trying to escape the projector. The overall effect is, broadly, what might happen if cheapo silent cinema cross-pollinated with sixties psych-acid midnight movies and had access to a digital editing suite.
Buried in amongst all this visual and sonic fuzz are a series of attenuated mini-narratives. These encompass suffocating submariners trying to release oxygen trapped in flapjacks; non-absorbant poison skeleton jumpsuits, a death sentence for squid theft, a song devoted to the legendary filipino vampire ‘Aswang,’ a man who runs too fast to catch bison, a penis-weighing competition and the appearance of sinister ‘black banana monsters’ that might give David Lynch nightmares.
Bringing these twisted vignettes to life are several luminaries of ‘weird cinema,’ Mathieu Amalric is slimily pathetic in a farcical sketch where a forgetful husband winds up murdering his butler. The always enjoyable Geraldine Chaplin (bringing with her an impeccable familial pedigree for this style) makes a couple of appearances, impressing in roles as diverse as ‘Aunt Chance’ and ‘The Master Passion.’ Best of all though are lengthy appearances from the legendary Udo Kier, clearly relishing playing a man slowly lobotomizing himself in an attempt to cure his fascination with women’s asses and a dead man saying some very long final goodbyes.
All this comes at you at a million miles a second at ear-splitting volume, making the experience of watching this not unlike undergoing A Clockwork Orange‘s eyes-pinned-back Ludovico Technique. Screening this on a gargantuan full-size IMAX screen quickly felt more like an exercise in audience sadism than anything else. At the hour mark my eyes were sore and exhausted. By the time the film was ending I had a vein painfully throbbing in my temple. Stumbling out into the London night I felt like I’d been spiked, the graffitied walls of the Waterloo underpass quivering tremulously around me.
I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly recommend The Forbidden Room. It’s plausible that this film could actually send someone over the edge of sanity – at minimum it should come with a warning that anyone prone to seizures should stay away. If you can stomach it though, then you’re in for a wild ride.
If you've got the stomach for nerve-shredding, ultra-experimental, monster-psychedelic, idiosyncratic-as-all-hell cinema, then boy oh boy, The Forbidden Room is the film for you!