1993, Movie, NR, 96 mins


Few directors deserve the epithet "unique," but Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is one of them; one can't mistake his work for that of anyone else. Slyly borrowing techniques from silent and early sound cinema, Maddin transplants the essence of early film aesthetics onto weird melodramatic plots that are unmistakably his own. Deconstructing melodrama, Maddin plays with aural and temporal concerns to create a timeless screen universe that is as strange and arresting as the oddball characters who inhabit the Maddin iconography.

In the mythical mountain village of Tolzbad, silence is golden: the residents cringe in fear of avalanches. Metaphorically, the anxiety about noise represents a deeper, inner instinctual dread of expressing one's true desires. Conditioned to dwell in this cabin fever environment and accustomed to whispering indoors, it's no wonder that Grigorrs (Kyle McCullough) and Johann (Brent Neale) have trouble keeping their minds on Butler School. Betrothed to the intense Klara (Sarah Neville), Johann tries to crush his lust for his widowed mother Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). When he spies on her naked form in the bathtub with incestuous intent, Johann literally keeps quiet about his forbidden desire by hurling himself off a cliff into the abyss. His surviving sibling Griggors must be wary of courting Klara because her own affection for her father, Herr Trotta (Victor Cowie), is so uncontrollable that she tries to drown her favored sister Sigleinde (Katya Gardner).

When Griggors is honored with a serving position at the Castle of Count Knotgers (Paul Cox), his joy is shortlived. He learns the Count and Zenaida plan to revive their abortive affair of many years ago and vows to avenge his late father's honor. Griggors withdraws his challenge to duel Knotgers only after his mother finally agrees to accept his crippled brother Franz (Vince Rimmer). Howver, selfishly disregarding his mother's last chance for love and egged on by the perverse Klara, Griggors slays the Count, thus unhinging his mother who hangs herself in the attic, in front of neglected Franz. Changing her mind in the midst of attempting to murder her father, Klara pitches down the mountainside locked in his embrace. Devastated Griggors shivers in Klara's mountain retreat while Franz searches for the missing Sigleinde.

Imagine characters from a Douglas Sirk soap opera, played by Werner Herzog actors trapped in a mise-en-scene designed by David Lynch and directed by D.W. Griffith. Brilliantly working with the cinematic staples long abandoned by Hollywood craftsmen, Maddin invents a surrealistic counterpart for the frozen passion of his trapped characters. Indelibly suggesting Freudian states of mind through his visuals (e.g., the severe icy landscape, the impenetrable silence, the self-mutilation with coals), Maddin delves into incestuous conflicts that are all the more disturbing for being set against this mountain fable background. Whether utilizing pastel color effects reminiscent of two-strip technicolor or employing oblique camera angles, Maddin unfolds a postcard-pretty Alpine Land where every emotion is off-center. Enhancing the disorienting visuals are Maddin's experiments with sound. Not only does he skew our sensory perception, he unsettles us with the unnervingly calm narration and the deadpan intonations his actors apply to their flowery, ultra-formal dialogue. The overall effect is to distance us; yet the black humor resulting from trance-like acting does not fully cancel out the wrenching effect of the characters' emotional suffering. If Maddin's studied technique cools down the hothouse passions, it also hints at undercurrents of perversion that other filmmakers could only dream of unleashing onscreen. While the deliberately amateurish, stilted acting seems at odds with the fruity dialogue, Maddin's intention is to subdue every aspect of his peculiar dreamscape; acting, decor, costuming, cinematography and sound recording remain equal components. No one element predominates or upsets the director's carefully controlled chaos. An acquired taste, Maddin is an unusually precise director who leaves little to chance. Whether one finds his approach too careful or just stunningly controlled will be up to individual cineastes. (Nudity, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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