This article was produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. Read more on this year’s class here.
“Dream logic embraces embodied instinct and cosmic self-awareness, our lowest animal desires and our highest spiritual aspirations, our darkest fears and our brightest joys. It governs a much wider range of experiences and realities than is normally recognized by waking consciousness.” —Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulegue
What doesn’t “The Forbidden Room” attempt to explore, evoke, distort or induce? Very little, it seems. The latest brainchild to emerge from Canadian avant-garde aficionado Guy Maddin, this frenetic and farcical fantasia — which could easily pass as an art installation — plays like an homage to the vintage films born out of the celluloid and film stock era; a distilled celebration of Maddin’s filmic fetishism, phantasmic impulsivity, and flair for melodramatic excess. So while “The Forbidden Room” does achieve the astonishing — and seemingly implausible — feat of feeling like a Maddin film after several doses of candy flipping, it is nonetheless an easily recognizable, quintessential Maddin offering; a truly imaginative feast of oneiric proportions that embodies the very essence of dream logic.
Featured at this year’s New York Film Festival and now released theatrically, “The Forbidden Room” joins a host of other full-length and short entries that seem to operate with a certain predilection for delving into the inner workings of the unconscious mind and the underpinnings of basic thought & human emotion. Along with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor” (and to a lesser extent Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog”), these feature films achieve an intriguing thematic unity in their efforts to capture the singularity and ephemerality of dreams and dream logic, dimensions of thought, dissociation, stream-of-consciousness and one’s inner psyche.
Upon embarking on the chimeric odyssey and experimental cornucopia that is “The Forbidden Room,” one must be warned that the experience is not unlike taking an expansive and exhaustive trip down the rabbit hole — for even the attempt to provide a streamlined and coherent narrative summary of the film can often seem futile, impossible and even antithetical to the purpose of its viewing. Assembled in an elliptical mise-en-abyme elliptical structure where events and details often zoom in on each other or loop back on themselves, the film opens with a tutorial on how to properly take a bath; shot in a style that bears the amateurish familiarity and farce of ’60s sexploitation and B movies. From there, “Room” continues to uncoil and delve deeper through a series of digressions presented in the form of tangentially linked yet increasingly bizarre vignettes that are as absurd as they are void of any context or narrative logic: Squid theft; a competition involving “offal piling;” a vamp damsel in distress whose only escape is through dreaming; a man undergoing a lobotomy for his compulsive “derrière pinching” medical condition; speeches delivered with the fever-pitch hysteria of an internal monologue, while other sequences operate under a lethargic rural duskiness; a surgeon obsessed with re-breaking the bones of his patients after healing them; erotic imagery that arouses a primal, animalistic carnality; and recurring shots of volcanoes in all their molten purgatorial glory are just some of “The Forbidden Room”’s fantastical and Freudian-tinged folly.
This formal deconstruction of conventional storytelling structure produces a sense of Buñuelian dissociation on both a visceral and compositional level that, coupled with the suffusion of surreal elements, allows “Room” to quickly achieve the cinematic equivalence of a dissociative state of mind — one that flows with the free-associative fluidity as stream-of-conscious thought, yet unfolds with the unhinged logic, dissonant self-awareness, spiritual evocations and fragmented flux of a dream.
“Room” is basically a compendium of sensory stimuli, stylistic flourishes, and subliminal motifs; and Maddin’s discordant symphony produces an uncanny sense of disorientation that is reflected in its superb ability to probe the depths of human emotion and visualize the elusive transience of thought, memory, dreams, and the passage of time. Indeed, its nearly two-hour runtime can feel like a rather exhausting ordeal of incongruous virtuosity, though it does get potent mileage out of Maddin’s arsenal of technical gimmicks that tap into the vein of cinematic nostalgia and amplify the film’s sense of autonomic urgency. From the use of decayed and altered negative film stocks, intertitle cards, slapstick comedy, the combination of two-strip Technicolor (a throwback to films from the 1930s and ’40s) along with black-and-white photography, deliberately artificial production design tricks such as rear projection and stage props, and post-production techniques that create the effect of photochemical manipulation; the film is crammed with embellishments drawn from Maddin’s esoteric repertoire of films. With influences including silent pictures, talkies, sexploitation and early European genre fare — Maddin is particularly fond of long-ago films that have faded from the collective consciousness, been destroyed, or otherwise disappeared into the cultural ether over time — this flurry of stylistic influences is deliriously re-contextualized in a way that suggests the film clearly relishes its self-referential indulgence, skewed mirroring, and impenetrability. To its credit, there is a deliberate economy at play in the way each stylistic flourish does more than just contribute to the film’s aesthetic texture — the frantic editing alone manages to wondrously communicate (and trigger) the dizzying sensation of being hyper-stimulated — and two technical choices especially come to mind for their seamless synergy with the film’s intuitive compulsions, psychic preoccupations, associative nonsense, and feverish headspace. One involves the use of superimposed granular celluloid images dissolving then re-forming to achieve the illusion of “melting”: an apt visual metaphor for the liquidity of free-associations and the diffusive ease with which thought/memories come and go.
Yet perhaps most striking is the film’s overt references to German Expressionism. Through the use of highly pigmented and saturated color contrast, optic distortion, harsh angularity, and shadowy storybook imagery, “Room” mirrors the genre’s ghoulish Gothicism — and many scenes achieve the strangely beautiful effect perfected by Expressionist tableaus of a haunting fairy-tale, albeit one that has fused with a kind of hellish noir dreamscape. While these forms of distortion illustrate the subjectivity of the mind and play with our depth perception, their macabre undertones parallel the film’s metaphysical implications and recurring motifs concerning spirituality, reincarnation, mysticism and the afterlife — one hospital (appropriately named The Oracle Bones) scene featuring the aforementioned broken-boned patient emerging from her cocoon-like cast elicits a particular Kafka-esque fascination with metamorphosis and rebirth.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film “Cemetery of Splendor” also exhibits a fascination with the boundless intrigue of the unconscious mind and the nature of dreams by invoking elements of mysticism and metaphysical phenomena — yet it does so through a meditative tranquility that starkly veers away from “The Forbidden Room’s” manic chaos and Freudian iterations of dream logic.
Having made its U.S. premiere at the NYFF, “Cemetery” centers on a compassionate middle-aged volunteer and a young clairvoyant, who both tend to comatose soldiers at an old elementary school-turned-makeshift hospital. According to the clairvoyant, the soldiers are waging war in their sleep; drafted by and fighting on behalf of long-dead kings whose burial grounds lie beneath the hospital’s foundation.
Incorporating Thailand’s troubled political history and fascination with supernatural phenomena alongside dialogue that manages to be both straightforward and oddly veiled, “Cemetery’s” beauty lies in its unique and elegant ability to blend the prosaic and the otherworldly amidst an undercurrent of melancholy. Weerasethakul is not interested in delving into his soldiers’ headspace and depicting their adventures, but rather wants his camera to be a fly on the wall; a patient voyeur simply observing the act of others sleeping from a distance. Through its predominantly wide shots that always include several beds in each frame, Weerasethakul’s camera passively emphasizes this distance by highlighting the shot’s spacious and ruminative serenity — and in doing so elevates the very banal act of observing these soldiers in their slumber to a sublime state of lucid dreaming.
Amidst the faint sounds of birds and children, these long takes of silent stillness invite a spiritual contemplation on behalf of the viewer that becomes increasingly entrancing with each beat and renders each moment all the more profound. While “Room’s” dream logic is constructed in such a way as to invite the viewer’s constant insertion of subtext, the film’s over-stimulation leaves us having to constantly keep up — whereas Cemetery’s languid pace produces a kind of fugue trance that is both ruminative and hypnotic. Unlike Room’s bombastic choppiness, this ethereality allows Weerasethakul’s film to achieve a kind of subliminal surrealism that is at once ordinary and transcendent — and completely aligns with the film’s more subdued yet richly impressionistic representation of sleep as the ultimate form of escape, insight, adventure and safe haven.
Further contributing to “Cemetery’s” enigmatic beauty is the way each scene seamlessly blends quotidian familiarity with the otherworldliness of psychics, phantoms and supernatural phenomena; so that it’s never entirely clear which is which, and key moments or exchanges often don’t deliver any instant gratification in being able to discern their tone, meaning, or purpose. For many viewers, this elusive ambiguity can feel a bit disorienting, alienating and even frustrating, and certainly demands a level of patience as well as trust in the director. But “Cemetery’s” power and resonance lies in this very ambiguity; in the way the lingering silence and space that fills the air speak volumes. Though patience is a virtue, and if you allow yourself to go along and take it all in, eventually there will come a moment where suddenly everything will click — and when it does, that moment will be overwhelmingly beautiful, emotionally cathartic and perhaps even a bit spiritually enlightening; strangely divine in its inert simplicity.