The story behind The Forbidden Room is simple: using the titles, loglines, posters, or any other extant materials that survive from lost silent films (every director from that era, whether F.W. Murnau, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, or names whose significance has faded through the decades, has at least one), Guy Maddin, together with digital collaborators Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, among others, staged (loose) imaginations of these not-films at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Centre PHI in Montreal before live audiences, under the title Seances. Out of the over 30 resurrected silent films, The Forbidden Room is, then, essentially an edited compilation of filmed theatre (the footage will also be used for an online installation on the National Film Board website). But because this is a Guy Maddin work, that is where the simplicity ends.
“Ashbery does death justice,” wrote Helen Vendler of poet John Ashbery, who, along with Kim Morgan, Robert Kotyk, Maddin and Evan Johnson, contributed to the film’s script and intertitles (which there are a massive amount of — unlike those who regard silent film as either belonging to history’s dustbin or antique shop, Maddin looks at intertitle writing as what it was in its heyday: a minor artform in its own right). With The Forbidden Room, Maddin does his main subjects justice: dreams, lust, and memory. The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s second digital film, after Keyhole, his adaptation of the Odysseus myth, and while his method of manically edited and framed silent-ghost cinema hasn’t changed drastically, here, in his first mainly colour film since the 1990s, it works with a conceptually gigantic reach: nothing less than a narrative structure that elapses in a world where narrative never ends.
One more note on Ashbery, from John Bayley: “It is part of the Ashbery paradox that boredom is as compelling as daydream, the routine coming and going of consciousness as masterful as the deeds of an old-time extrovert film hero.” Maddin turns this poetic mode into relentless real-time palimpsest, where one narrative is written onto another, and another, stacking, or descending, with the unpredictable wavelength shifts of REM sleep states. Since early 20th century cinema is the model, these narratives are familiar, though Maddin rips them apart, seeking the ritualistic, subconscious workings within them, the flights of passion, the shameful grip of secret fears revealed; The Forbidden Room is a documentary of the possessed and repressed within the sources of early film: British and British-influenced American novels, drawing-room dramas, Asian and South American exoticism, underworld night clubs, sweet rural pastoralism, banal romantic adventures, cobblestone-street and shadowed-office horror.
Seeping through all this heated creation (pulsing with the decay of two-tone Technicolor, a digital post-production effect that time-warps Seances from modern museum performance into a hazy, giddy freefall) is Maddin’s humour. When comedy works, we sometimes describe it as effortless — this is the opposite. Elaborate title card design, classical-sounding score compositions, and heroic actor declarations are undone by channel switching pranks, dream-state exclamations (“Dream the molten dream of justice!”), and ridiculous understatement. The Forbidden Room is a movie where nothing is surprising, because everything is potentially about to happen (over this many stories, people are bound to die, live, save, fail, dream, descend, desire, and do it all again): a total embrace and alienation of the original works Maddin and his collaborators have drawn from, a paradox.
Discussing the film’s editing process with Cinema Scope (The Forbidden Room continues to undergo change, as it screened at VIFF with a running time of 132 minutes, but will be twelve minutes shorter when it returns for a limited run at the Vancity Theatre), Maddin uses the language of internal monologue: “This whole process reminded me of the way one revisits a truly precious memory, at first in haste, then again with more methodical determination, then finally and repeatedly with a long fetishizing languor.” Possibly due to the live theatrical process, there is a consistency of tone among the cast (Roy Dupuis and Clara Furey are the closest to main characters, but most actors appear in multiple stories), a similar openness to whatever may come, even as their performances are spliced, mixed, and swept away. On top of all this, Maddin also includes epigraphs, throwing classical literature into the swirl (the film opens with John 6:12). An early one comes from Keats’ “On the Sea,” but the first stanza, which isn’t quoted, would apply just as well to The Forbidden Room:
“It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.”