Through the Keyhole

Indy Datta reviews the new film from Guy Maddin, Keyhole.

The avant-garde Canadian film maker Guy Maddin has worked a consistent seam – in his narrative film work and as an art film maker – since before his first feature, 1986’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital. Fans will know what to expect from Keyhole, his latest narrative feature, and their expectations will be met, as Maddin serves up an instantly identifiable brew of early film pastiche, wild cut-up surrealism and endearingly lowbrow comedy.  And beyond the surfaces of his films, the personal nature of Maddin’s sensibility is also an identifiable thread running through his work, and one that is arguably getting stronger with time.  Maddin’s last feature, the sly, wry cinematic memoir of his youth and hometown that was My Winnipeg, was probably his most accessible work to date, and Keyhole is in many ways another return to the film maker’s roots – a riff on Homer’s Odyssey (crossed with classic Hollywood gangster films) set entirely in a Winnipeg home very like the one Maddin grew up in.

What it isn’t is at all accessible. And, in fact, the notion that the film is a gangster-flick-meets-haunted-house-flick reinterpretation of the Odyssey (or, as Maddin has winningly averred, of the Wikipedia page for the Odyssey) turns out to be something of an alibi for Maddin’s original creative impulse, which was to make a film exploring the psychology of houses, inspired by the book The Poetics of Space by the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard.

Thus, the film uses its ostensible narrative, of long-absent father and gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric, giving good granite-jawed WB crime flick hardman) returning to his family home to seek a reunion with his wife (Maddin stalwart Isabella Rossellini) less – actually not at all – for conventional dramatic ends than as a structure on which Maddin can arrange his meditations on the way a family home and the things in it can be a repository of memories so powerful that they can feel like ghosts. So, in place of the sense that Ulysses is getting closer to his goal, there are multiple switchbacks and diversions: his gang mutinies against him and tries to kill him by strapping him into a home-made, bicycle-powered electric chair; a doctor (Udo Kier) is called to minister to the drowned, yet apparently paradoxically alive, girl Ulysses carries into the film over his shoulder.

I watched Keyhole twice. The first time was like being trapped in a fairground haunted house and not being able to find the way out. Allied to the film’s lack of interest in narrative drive and coherence, Maddin’s distinctive visual style, privileging the impact of individual shots and moment-to-moment effects, has little truck with mainstream narrative film-making’s traditional ideas of spatial coherence and continuity. And whereas, in the past, the style has often been tempered by a strong, simple narrative spine (Maddin’s own reminiscences – some albeit fantastical – in My Winnipeg; the family melodrama and the music competition plot in The Saddest Music in the World), Keyhole is as defiantly non-linear and random access as memory itself.  Second time around, and knowing from my research what Maddin’s expressed intentions were, it was a much more fulfilling experience.

In some ways, that feels thematically appropriate, like the film is a house you can’t sleep and dream properly in the first night you spend in it.  The more prosaic explanation – that the film required familiarity and exposure to Maddin’s own curatorial gloss before it cohered for me – points to a sense that the art film maker side of Maddin – who has spent much of this year staging “film séances” in art galleries including  the Pompidou Centre – has prevailed here.

Unsuspecting newcomers to Maddin’s world, then, might find themselves perplexed by Keyhole. Audiences more familiar with his previous work may have the opposite problem – that it doesn’t surprise them enough. At times, Keyhole can feel overstuffed and superficially overinvented.  This house can feel  full of things – the pedal-powered Old Sparky; the Brazil-esque  communications tool that dispatches a bullet-shaped message to whichever member of Ulysses’ family you dial up on the console; the, er, plaster cock sticking out of the wall – that mean less than they should. And on a more superficial level, the jokes don’t build and last and resonate here the way, say, Isabella Rossellini’s beer-filled glass legs did in Saddest Music.

One surprise for Maddin fans will be that Keyhole is shot on HD video, and where Maddin has previously aggressively degraded the grain structure of his film stocks and used optical effects to obscure much of what his camera sees, here he goes for clarity, a silky monochrome look that mimics pristine silver gelatin photo prints. While the content of Maddin’s film is more obscure than it has been for some time, the surface of it has become more straightforward, inviting you to read it squarely as a film, not as an artifact.

Reportedly, Maddin’s next film will be in colour throughout (this film has splashes of simulated hand tinting).  On the surface, this will be Maddin’s biggest aesthetic departure yet from his past practice, but the paradoxical nature of Keyhole suggests that whatever you might expect from a Guy Maddin colour film, your expectations will be both met and confounded.

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One thought on “Through the Keyhole

  1. Good review. Makes me want to revisit it, though I didn’t much enjoy the first go round either. It’s very much of a piece with Maddin’s increasingly odd shorts – though how a career in shorts that started with Sissy Boy Slap Party can actually get weirder, you’ll have to watch them to understand…

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