There’s a submarine deep underwater slowly running out of fuel and oxygen while the captain, locked in his room, succumbs to madness. Still trying to work out what to do, the crew is joined, mysteriously, by a woodsman from nowhere. This accurately sums up the plot of about the first ten minutes of The Forbidden Room, but really does little to sum it up at all. It’s not a ghost picture and it’s not a submarine picture but rather, a bewildering long-form montage of stock characters and stock scenes that appeal to Guy Maddin, drawn mostly from silent film. We are invited into the woodsman’s backstory, and within that backstory are shown another character’s dream, and within that dream there will be another dream, or perhaps a flashback or premonition. At one point even the volcano has a dream. It isn’t easy to follow, but then it isn’t meant to be; it isn’t story that’s the point here, but imagery, and The Forbidden Room manages, on occasion, to deliver those memorable images, but it never gets even close to the success rate of, say, Georges Méliès or Fritz Lang.
Essentially, The Forbidden Room is a compilation of short films by the same director. Unlinked by plot or even by theme, the only through-line is a vague similarity of style – a recreation of the faded colour or sepia, bold black and white, and often harsh editing of silent and early sound film. As often happens with homage, these features are so exaggerated that certain sections are physically difficult to watch, due to the slavish insistence on making every single shot damaged or awkward in some way, an authenticity to something that never existed in the first place. But inevitably again, some shorts are far more interesting than others. A parody of the film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes off quite well. Also pleasant is one aside that is totally irrelevant, even for this film – a nightclub singer performs the brand-new Sparks song “The Final Derriere”, written for this film. So it’s a music video, a form a half-century older than what the rest of the film treats. But it’s churlish to complain – it’s a segment that holds interest, and the segments that hold interest can’t help but stand out from an often tedious anthology. The film’s style and tone is challenging and bold, at first, but after ten or twenty minutes loses its effect, and then becomes simply an obstacle to enjoyment, even of its best bits. The sort of experimentalism that can work well in short film or, indeed, music video, becomes a tiresome joke in long-form. It’s a difficult film to like, but then I’m not sure we’re really meant to like it.
The Forbidden Room opens today (11th December) , will you be seeing it? Let us know in the comment box below!