Guy Maddin is the most interesting and best Canadian filmmaker working today and easily one of the best filmmakers from any region. I have a never-ending respect for David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, two directors whose work in the past has been spectacular, but Maddin has eclipsed them and developed a new style and visual language along the way. His films fall somewhere between narrative and experimental works on a filmic spectrum, frequently using documentary elements and always dealing with nostalgia and subconscious through a Brechtian formalist language. He walks the line of being fun and funny, but also uncanny, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently difficult.
His latest work, Keyhole, is all of these things. It's not really a linear narrative film, not totally experimental (despite being commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State), but also totally weird and unsettling. All the while it's thrilling, exuberant and firmly sarcastic. It is a film told in a "fugue state" style, making elements disconnected, obscured and abstract. It is wonderful and fascinating.
The story of the film is really secondary to the formalism and thematic content, but deals with a noir-like plot involving a man named Ulysses (Jason Patric), who returns to his home after a botched job with his underworld lackeys. He brings with him a young beauty, Denny (Brooke Palsson), and a bound young man, Manners (David Wontner), who seems to be his son. In the house on the upper floor is his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), and an old man who claims to be her father, guardian of all memories in the house. This geezer walks around, out of shape, in his underwear, dragging with him a heavy chain that seems to keep him tied to the building itself. Ulysses must struggle to get to his wife, deal with Old Man Memory and figure out what to do with his two prisoners.
As a dream-essay, the film doesn't move along in an A-to-B fashion, but jumps from one thing to another in a sometimes bizarre or difficult way. Characters don't seem to be really alive or dead, but suspended in mid-flight between two places (waking and sleeping, still and dynamic, past and present). Just like a dream, there are small circular stories connected with other circular stories, making the film slightly more difficult to follow... though if you sit back and enjoy it, everything becomes clear. (Part of this structure is that there is a somewhat Marxist element of having no internal dynamism, making it hard to know what is next or when it will end. This is certainly a challenge, but a thrilling and, ultimately, a rewarding one.)
From one scene to the next, Ulysses goes from hard-boiled B-movie noir star to a nervous everyman dealing with his memories and his demons. The house becomes his subconscious, his journey though it, like his classical namesake, becomes his psychoanalysis. The eponymous keyhole in the door to the upstairs bathroom (where Hyacinth and Old Man Memory seem to live) serves the purposes of being a small view into a distant recess of memory as well as a hole through which Ulysses can pull threads (literally). The reason the story feels choppy, difficult and strange is because it's Ulysses' therapeutic journey. My shrink father once said that psychoanalysis is the act of taking down a wall, brick by brick, and then rebuilding it slowly with better mortar... that seems pretty apt here in the case of this house.
Aside from all of this elegant presentation and plot, what makes Maddin's films so clever and enjoyable is how technically interesting they are. He's a master of juxtaposition, editing and pacing. Images are frequently on screen for seconds or only several frames, signaling something in our brains, but remaining distant enough that we feel we are just short of making a connection. Characters come and go through dark canals and obscured spaces, making the act of watching one of his films (this one in particular) a game, but one with no rules that are easy to win. It's a new kind of filmmaking, a doorway to more avante-garde material, reminiscent of the work of Bruce Connor, but shown through the prism of something almost familiar and narrative. It's difficult to define, but thrilling to behold.
Stars: 4 of 4