Which came first: dream-like movies, or movie-like dreams?
That seems to be the question asked by Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, a pastiche of 20’s and 30’s B-movies, adventures, and melodramas that weaves its over a dozen stories Scheherazade-like into one continuous movie.
From the opening credits, which is presented as a series of rediscovered yet not recovered silent-movie era title cards, there’s a sense of the dreamlike. The simulated aging, and heat and water damage of the “film” gives it a color palette so far removed from the color-corrected and tinted movies of today as to appear completely alien. And as the rest of the film adds stronger color filters, high-key lighting, black and white segments, and even stronger simulated damage that stretches and warps the images until you’re watching something completely unfamiliar.
Adding to that is the movie’s use of intertitle cards. Because the movie also has spoken dialogue, the cards are more comparable to comic-book sound effects than anything else. While they are sometimes used for unspoken dialogue or to contextualize new stories, they’re more often used to emphasize character emotions and action beats, sometimes even sign-posting things the movie otherwise doesn’t tell us.
The stories all of these images are used to tell might be even stranger. After the credits, we start with an instructional video on how to take a bath that segues into a story about a submarine crew trapped underwater by the pink pressure sensitive explosive jelly they’re transporting. This turns into another story about an apprentice lumberjack (saplingjack) out to rescue his girl from a hoard of pelt wearing mountain thieves, a story about the kidnapped girl’s dream – where she’s an amnesiac flower-girl and lounge singer, and so-on-and-so-forth. There’s a musical segment about a man who gets repeat lobotomies to treat his butt fetish, a boy who replaces his murdered father by wearing a fake mustache around his blind mother, and one involving skeleton women insurance fraudsters. And that’s only the half of it!
While each story follows its own consistent logic to some degree, at one point an initiation ritual requires such trials as finger snapping and bladder slapping, it’s the transitions from one story to another that really stretch the imagination. You think you begin to clue into when one story is going to transform, almost subconsciously, into another; and then The Forbidden Room throws in a transition involving talking bananas. The movie makes its weirdness readily apparent, but like a dream, you can’t fully appreciate how much sense it made in the moment compared to even just after. You ask yourself how you missed the story about men trapped on a submarine turning into one about lesbian virgin volcano sacrifices.
The Forbidden Room’s outspoken surrealism will almost immediately turn off a fair number of people, but even fans of the style will experience diminishing returns. Clocking in just under two hours, the movie can begin to feel like an assault on the senses – a seemingly unending, and inescapable montage of warped sound and running colors. It’s the sort of film that, if you can fall asleep 30 minutes in, and wake up 90 minutes in, you’ll be unsure of whether you fell asleep at all, or woke up at all.
And, in that way, The Forbidden Room gets into dialogue with the only other movie I can really compare it to – Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. In Sherlock Jr., Keaton’s character falls asleep while watching a movie and imagines his life recontextualized as various films, blurring the lines between cinema and subconscious. The Forbidden Room erases that line completely, feeling less like a movie, and more like a projection of Maddin’s dreams – film as abstract expressionism. Like those studies that say people who grew up before color TV dream in black-and-white, The Forbidden Room begs the question of how much what we watch influences how we dream, and vice-versa.
The Forbidden Room might be one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever seen. Its intentionally nonsensical and abstract, an endurance test of raw cinematic expressionism. At the same time, it’s comedic and whimsical, and whole-heartedly unique. The Forbidden Room is an incomparable, unforgettable experience that exists so far away from ideas like good-or-bad, what’s impression on the audience so personal and immediate, that I can’t help but recommend it. There’s a good chance you won’t like it, but you owe it to yourself to find that out.