Breaking Into The Forbidden Room, or Bits Of Life*

Bonus post! What did Paul Duane find in Guy Maddin’s tesseract of cinema?




During February 2012 I was in Paris with David Cairns, beginning work on our documentary Natan**, which itself has some affinity with the Maddin oeuvre, when I noticed a strange entry in the local listings magazine Pariscope. My French is atrocious, but from what I could make out, a series of Guy Maddin screenings were scheduled in the Georges Pomipdou Centre under the title Seances.

I had a fair handle on Maddin’s work, but these titles seemed unfamiliar – The Strength of A Moustache, Fist Of A Cripple & Dream Woman, among others. And alongside Maddin’s name appeared the names Erich Von Stroheim, Jean Vigo, Lon Chaney & Alfred Hitchcock.

It was all very confusing but eventually we figured out that Maddin had set up shop and studio in the foyer of the Pompidou and was engaged in these ‘seances’ designed to evoke the memory of various lost films, which he would then shoot, one a day, with Udo Kier, Louis Negin & others among his cast.

We took time out of our busy shooting schedule to go along and rubberneck, and it was quite the spectacle. Behind a flimsy guard-rope, there stood a rickety set, behind it a cheap back projection of flames, and contained within it were a bunch of confused looking, garishly costumed performers. Moving among them energetically, like a Tasmanian Devil of the cinema, was Maddin himself, helped by a small and fiercely protective crew.

He climbed ladders, lay under tables and swung from ropes, shooting what looked like one hundred set-ups per hour. I briefly made eye-contact with Udo, whose calm and dignified expression signified a lifetime spent making odd films on tiny sets with manic directors. As I left, I wondered what would become of this project, so clearly a product of the arts funding roundabout on which itinerant filmmakers like Maddin are now dependent.

It’s had a surprising afterlife.



The Forbidden Room is an anthology of dreams, a compendium of Maddin themes and a set of nested boxes, each one containing another story, and another, and another. But sometimes a box will open to reveal inside it a box you’ve already opened. It’s a Mobius strip inside a Russian doll.

It’s also an edifice made of genre parodies, everything from the homo-erotic instructional film, How To Take A Bath, whose aging roué narrator Louis Negin is recognisable from the pinnacle of Maddin’s homo-eroticism, 1995’s Sissy Boy Slap Party), to sweaty submarine tension straight out of Sam Fuller’s Hell & High Water, to backwoods mythology redolent of Fenimore Cooper, to a Val Lewton interlude that mixes Filipino vampire lore with sleazy noir nightclub antics, to South Sea Islands exotica, to… countless others.

Along the way, you, the audience, will willingly, feverishly enter the dreams of a sleeping volcano and the nightmares of a murdered man’s moustache hairs.

You will receive an object lesson in the difficulties of successfully covering up a murder when you live inside an elevator, and instruction in how to tell if you’re being followed by the Filipino vampire known as an Aswang (their footsteps grow louder the farther away they are, so – like the victims of the Nazis’ V2 rocket, you’re in most danger when you can only hear silence).

As you go deeper, descending into a dream within a dream within a dream, each of these stories melts and morphs, becoming a sort of underlay to the next, with elements, faces, thoughts merging one into another. You will begin, at a certain point, to worry – like someone who has been unknowingly ‘spiked’ with hallucinogenic drugs – that this will never end. But don’t worry, the impression is wholly deliberate.

When you arrive at the the centre of the maelstrom of plots you’ll find a short, sad story about drugs, sex and the betrayal of a dying mother by her son. By the time you’ve reached this point, the image  – never stable – has become a constantly shifting soup of morphs and glitches. And as you wonder how the story can ever end, a character excitedly begins to flip through – what else? – the Book of Climaxes. And we get, not one ending, but every ending.

Like the multiple tabs possibly even now open in your browser, each one indicating a different world within, The Forbidden Room represents an interface impossible until recently, a multi-coloured gob of digital spit in the faces of the film-as-film fetishists currently infesting cinema. Death to 70mm, we have AfterEffects and datamoshing.

Also, there’s a new song by Sparks here, about bottom fetishism & brain surgery. Honestly, what more do you really want?

3 – ARCHANGEL – 1990

The Midnight Madness strand of the Toronto Film Festival was an astonishing thing, that year. I was at that time working as some kind of fake job created by an Irish/Canadian government agency, a pretence that they were doing something for Irish filmmakers by letting them do idiot work on Canadian daytime TV. However, it permitted me my first experience of John Woo (Bullet In The Head), Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) and, er, Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker). After a long day’s busywork, these late-night shoot- and carve-em-ups would certainly keep you awake.

Not so Guy Maddin’s sonorous amnesiac nightmare Archangel, named for the town on the Russian front where the wounded and mad of all combatant nations in WW1 gathered as the war ended. This is a film whose subject is confusion, delirium & loss, whose object seemed to be an all-out attack on the audience’s wakefulness, battering them into sleepy assent.

Falling victim to the unassailable, almost physical torpor that oozed from the screen, I dreamt my way into and back out of the story. Did a fat cuckold, stomach bayonetted open by enemy troops, really protect his family with his dying breath by strangling his assailants with grey loops of his own intestines?  I am still unsure whether this scene actually happened.

But the narrative loopiness, the warm analogue crackle-baths of the soundtrack, and the loving recreation of cinema’s interstitial period between silent and sound, all seduced me. I hadn’t seen anything this weird since certain Laurel & Hardy shorts. I was hooked.



The film has two overarching plotlines. One deals with a phallic submarine full of sweaty seamen,  loaded with a cargo of explosive jelly. In the other, an intrepid woodsman ventures deep into a pink cave to discover a sexy but treacherous surprise. As these stories move inexorably towards their inevitable interlocking, the film leapfrogs over itself into madness.

The presiding spirits here are  Buñuel (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), Raul Ruiz (Three Crowns Of The Sailor) and Kentucky Fried Movie. In fact, for many, Guy Maddin’s fatal flaw in this and all his films is his sense of humour, which might well be branded ‘saucy’. Some viewers are bound to say ‘If only he would leave out the jokes, his astonishing imagery & experimental narrative approach might be more clearly apparent.’

But that would entirely miss the point, because Maddin – like The Forbidden Room‘s brain surgeon, plunging his fist into the cranium of a suffering Udo Kier – is voyaging deep into our submerged consciousness, where everything revolves around pun, filth and double meaning. The Freudian, the oedipal, the scatological and the indecent are his bread and butter on this journey, and he consumes them as greedily as his oxygen-starved submariners gobble flapjacks, desperate for the pockets of air inside them.

5 – CAREFUL! – 1992


Careful! is a seismic shift into sound & colour, and its story takes place entirely in the rarefied heights of the Swiss-German Alps (yet was shot entirely on the sound stages of Winnipeg). I saw this at some film festival in Leeds or Manchester, at around the same time I was first introduced to the work of Russ Meyer.

It took me years to appreciate the affinities between the two filmmakers, both doggedly independent, badly burned on their sole interaction with the Hollywood system, focusing their cameras on beautiful women and ridiculous men, pursuing their personal obsessions to the point where the films almost explode from the pressure of their internal contradictions.

Careful! is a story of Oedipal love in a mountain community so strictly regulated that even the goats have had their vocal cords slit lest their bleating unleash an avalanche. Dermot Healy’s great Irish novel A Goat’s Song introduced me to the source of the word ‘tragedy’ in the Greek word for goat-song Whether or not this is a hidden reference within Careful!, I don’t know. Given that the script was co-authored by the encyclopaedically informed academic, George Toles, I wouldn’t bet against it.


I keep referring to The Forbidden Room as a Guy Maddin film when in fact it’s not. It’s a collaboration between Maddin and a highly creative bunch of people, most notably his co-director Evan Johnson. It was Johnson who figured out the never-before-used grading, editing and moshing techniques that give the film its extraordinary texture – partly Decasia , partly digital glitching – and who now, understandably, wants to keep it a closely guarded secret. It’s good, I think, that some things remain secret.

Collaboration is in Maddin’s lifeblood to an extent rare in auteur cinema. His generosity as an artist is reflected in his prodigal inventiveness. This is a man with stories to burn.



In 1997 Maddin had his low-point, his brush with the world of the large-budget indie feature. The result, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, is a leaden slog and a difficult film to watch, even more so if you put on the Commentary Track where Maddin & Toles meet for the first time since their painful rupture during production and anatomise what went wrong. But it taught Maddin what not to do.

Years later, when he got another chance to spend real money on a film, he just stuck to working as he had when he was penniless. The result is possibly his most fully realised and conventional piece of work, if you can call a film where Isabella Rosselini plays a crippled heiress, restored temporarily to full mobility by a con-man who effects for her prosthetic beer-filled glass legs, ‘conventional’.

I was living in London when the film came out, and by chance was working with someone who knew one of the producers, so I inveigled my way into a drinking session with him and Maddin at the Groucho Club in London.

My foggy memory only records a few glimpses – the producer excitedly showing Guy the NYC opening weekend box-office, and Guy’s guilty response of “I’m afraid I really have no way of interpreting these figures”; a brief visit from Neil Jordan, which signally failed to be a meeting of minds; and the arrival of Maria de Medeiros, quite late, and an invitation to go clubbing with her to Heaven, which for some reason I will never be able to explain, I declined, preferring to go home on the nightbus instead.

The bottom line, however, is that Guy Maddin is a prince among men in my experience.



When I graduated from Art School having made my first, tragic little 16mm short film, my post-graduation job was as a watchman guarding a prestigious exhibition of Modern Art that took place that year in Dublin.

Apart from one entirely black painting by Rodchenko, the work that impressed me most was the Arte Povera stuff, which was greatly influential at that time. Being from that strange Venn diagram between Art and Cinema I spent much of my time wondering if was possible to bring the spirit of this movement into film. I was young and stupid and therefore never figured out how to do such a thing.

But at the same moment, on the other side of the world, in remotest snowbound Winnipeg, Guy Maddin and a bunch of his friends were busily doing what I was only dreaming about. I’ve always had a feeling I was born in the wrong place but at the right time.

I think I would have enjoyed being a part of Maddin’s Cinema Povera, fashioning Zeppelins out of papier maché, being dragooned into playing the part of a disfigured casualty of war, or whatever. Dreaming my way into another existence, or deeper into my own, alongside one of the great dreamers of the cinema history.

* Bits of Life is a lost Lon Chaney/Anna May Wong film which was on the Maddin list but seems to have dropped off somewhere along the line.

** Natan has its belated television premiere in 2016 on Arte, and is available on DVD at a low low price from Lobster Films

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