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'The Forbidden Room' Might Be Closer Than You Think

Clara Furey in a scene from <em>The Forbidden Room</em>.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.
Clara Furey in a scene from The Forbidden Room.

Eccentric Canadian cinephile Guy Maddin simulates battered 1920s films so brilliantly that it's easy to miss what else he does. His The Forbidden Room, co-directed by protege Evan Johnson, plays like an anarchic collage of late-silent-era melodramas, action flicks, and horror movies, just unearthed after going unseen for nearly a century.

But the film is more than just spot-on parody.

The action begins with an ersatz instructional film about how to take a bath, purportedly featuring the poet John Ashbery. From this watery farce, the film switches to a spoof of a deadly serious tale of the sea: Four men are trapped in a submarine that can't surface and are running out of air. While eating flapjacks — for the air pockets, you see — they consider disturbing the captain, whose chamber is off-limits to them.

A drenched woodsman, Cesare, somehow enters the sub, which switches the narrative to Cesare's quest to rescue beautiful and (of course) amnesiac Margot. She's being held in a cave, another forbidding space, by fur-wearing wolf-men. This absurd segue leads to a dozen more, introducing brief pastiches of movies set on trains, in elevators, at a windmill-powered country estate, in a city beset by a vampire, and on a volcanic tropical island. The tales shift suddenly, only to reappear as the film circles back to its opening to find its frantic conclusion.

There are even musical numbers, notably a sequence about a man's desperate attempt to banish his fascination with female bottoms, set to a Sparks ditty titled "The Final Derriere."

Using a variety of film stocks and treating them with digital effects, Maddin and Johnson replicate the look of black-and-white, two-strip color and hand-tinted movies. Old-fashioned title cards provide dialogue and commentary and introduce the characters and the actors who play them. (The large cast includes Matthieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Clare Furey, Udo Kier, Louis Negin, Charlotte Rampling, and more, some in multiple roles.) Sets, camera angles, and editing styles draw from German expressionism and early Soviet cinema. And all the footage has been "aged" so it resembles film weathered by use, decay, and neglect.

There are plenty of inside jokes and winking references, but also laugh-out-loud moments. A man bids to join a criminal gang, and his initiation includes such "ordeals" as finger-snapping. A woman who's introduced to her inner child promptly blasts the phantom moppet with a pistol. A man who puts an evil statue up for auction finds himself bidding on it, and his rival for the accursed thing is his doppelganger.

Maddin emulates movies of the mid-to-late-'20s, made when sound was beginning to enter but title cards were still in use. This adds to the possibilities for juxtaposition, but also symbolizes a change in sensibility that goes beyond cinema. The director's work ponders the clash between science and superstition, and the twentieth century's growing regard for medicine and psychiatry. Maddin's films take their cues from F.W. Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein, but also Sigmund Freud.

The Forbidden Room includes domestic tales that illustrate the human genius for escalating minor lapses into crises, as when a man's failure to remember his wife's birthday leads to murder. More starkly, movie monsters — vampires, possessed brutes, skeletal dancers — personify the id. A Berlin-Bogota express is staffed by a train psychiatrist, and strange medical procedures abound. In one of them, a man's cranium is open for repeated but unsuccessful adjustments, suggesting that the real forbidden room is the human brain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.