The Forbidden Room (2015)

As usual this got added to my watch list due to the numerous awards it won and the attention it got from critics but I immediately realized that this wouldn’t be easy to watch. I’ve never heard of director Guy Maddin but reading up on him, he seems to be as much an artist as a director. This explains the highly experimental nature of this work with its lack of any coherent plot, weird esthetics and my inability to parse any kind of sense from it.

The entire structure of this film consists of people telling stories or having a dream or a vision and then revealing another story within it and so on and on. The outermost layer is an aged man in a bathrobe instructing the audience on how to have a bath. In the bathtub the focus switches to the crew of a submarine that is carrying a dangerous gel as cargo. They fear that if they surface the change in pressure will cause the gel to explode, yet they are running out of air. They decide to consult the captain who seems to be ensconced within a forbidden room deep inside the submarine. When they search however they suddenly find a lumberjack who has appeared out of nowhere. This man’s last memory was being in a forest seeking to rescue a woman from a gang of kidnappers. And so on and on the narrative spirals ever deeper into the realm of the bizarre and the incomprehensible.

It’s not just the content of the film that is weird either. The use of intertitles and an exaggerated, theatrical style of acting recall the silent film era though there is plenty of dialogue and sound in it. The dark tone of the stories and how fantastic elements are involved as a matter of course means they fall into the genre of pulp fiction. I was stupefied in one scene when a girl is going to have sex with a man only to discover that he has been transformed into a talking aswang banana, whatever that is. I had to look it up to discover that this refers to a sort of shape-shifting vampiric monster from Filipino folklore. The film is full of other things that are almost as strange, including placating a volcano with sacrifices, a man who suffers from a condition similar to Jekyll and Hyde due to his adoration of the two-faced god Janus and a strange tale of a seemingly sentient mustache.

It’s a testament to the ability of the two directors Maddin and Evan Johnson that instead of coming across as dumb silliness, The Forbidden Room does evoke a sense of dread and horror. Even if it’s hard to make sense of the multiple narratives and your suspension of disbelief is constantly challenged, the film has no trouble keeping your attention. In the end however I still didn’t enjoy it very much. It’s interesting as an experience to open your eyes to different filmmaking techniques and possibilities but this one didn’t do much for me and I can only watch weird fare like in moderation. I would have preferred that they make a pulp fiction style film in a straight manner, much like for example The Love Witch.

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