Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 25, 2015 4:06 pm 
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An impressive display for its own sake of what Madden does best, rich and idiosyncratic pastiches on silent film

It begins with a submarine crew trapped under water, then shifts to a a lumberjack looking for companionship and a lost lady. Then scenes and characters multiply with jaw-dropping frequency for the rest of over two hours. According to Madden in the 2015 NYFF P&I Q&A, there are 17 story lines explored (or initiated) in his new film, The Forbidden Room. These are not simply "the entirety of Maddin’s oeuvre collapsing in on itself," as Jordan Hoffman said in the Guardian's Sundance review, but evocations of Saturday short serial films of the early days of movies. As the Winnepeg, Ontario native and art film celebrity's Wikipedia bio points out at its outset, his "most distinctive quality is his penchant for recreating the look and style of silent or early-sound-era films." The Forbidden Room, however virtuoso it may be in new digital processing and editing techniques (in part due no doubt to Madden's young collaborator Evan Johnson), is above all a triumph of silent film pastiche, with color (in lurid tints) and sound (in booming rich musical rumble) added in the Canadian's inexhaustible sui generis manner. Part of this is flickering image, shifting light, a crafted, distressed-film texture to every shot. Despite constant shifts of narrative and introduction of new characters (with relentless, but structurally helpful, silent-film-style on-screen titles giving their name and the actor's), The Forbidden Room is above all wonderfully unified in look and style. Madden may have only a small coterie of true fans, but it has grown to fit an international celebrity, and the work, even to a jaundiced eye, is that of a master of what he does at the top of his form.

Madden explained in that Q&A that the majority of the initial work on the film was done in Paris on small artificial and claustrophobic sets at two locations, including the Musée Ponpidou, where ostensibly he was presenting installations, but he was also shooting digital film. (The Wikipedia bio also notes, "A number of Maddin's recent films began as or developed from installation art projects.") The French locale explains some of the cameos, like Adèle Haenel, Charlotte Rampling, Jacques Nolot, Matthieu Almaric, Jean-François Stévenin, Marie Brassard, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles, et al. -- though there are native English speakers as well, and legendary cult electro-pop duo Sparks, and muses Louis Negin and Udo Kier, and more. Each cast member, whether cameo celebrity or beautiful unknown (and there is no shortage of attractive young men) has a role to play and and often a new narrative to introduce. The collection of stories-within-stories is bookended with a boisterous disquisition on "the bath" drawn from a poem by John Ashbery.

The NYFF press screening was populated with its share of fans: giggles and whoops of glee could be heart at the film's humorous bits. Non-fans like myself, less charmed by the quirky humor, could find the footage hard going at times. The rule for the performances seemed to be simply: whatever you do, overact. And the imagination, like the humor, seemed to be that of an imaginative and bookish (in old-fashioned child lit) small boy. I wish the magnificent "look" could have been put to the service of a single involving, coherent action, like a regular feature film. How silly I am. But Madden has done that more in some other films, though none perhaps has looked so colorful and flickeringly rich-textured as this one. An admirer in the screening audience expressed surprise to me that a filmmaker as offbeat and limited appeal as Madden had now become so famous. But he is a virtuoso. (My least favorite Madden film: The Saddest Music in the World. My favorite, to me the most accessible: My Winnepeg.)

The Forbidden Room, 120 mins, debuted at Sundance Jan. 2015; nearly two dozen festival showings, US premiere 28 September 2015, at the NYFF, where it was screened for this review. A Kino Lorber release. US theatrical release begins 17 October NYC (Film Forum).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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