Sundance Review: The Forbidden Room


The Forbidden Room Still Photo

The Forbidden Room debuted at Sundance Film Festival, and a significant portion of the audience left the screening within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits. This polarizing film is a symphonic cacophony of visual and aural stimulation, with interludes of absurd humor to relieve the pressure. Co-directors/writers Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson along with co-writers Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery and Kim Morgan crafted the story like a traditional Russian nesting doll, with tales within tales -- and sometimes within inanimate objects such as a urine stain within which a battle rages. Lovers, murderers, chanteuses, vampire bananas, motorcycle girls and skeletons are just a few of the macabre players in this delightfully demented and disturbing tale.

The challenge of The Forbidden Room is to follow the threads of each of the stories that are interwoven in a crudely but lovingly handcrafted tapestry. After a brief introduction on "How to Take A Bath," we meet the crew of a submarine that has been trapped underwater for months due to an unstable cargo and missing captain. While the men struggle to survive by eating -- and breathing via -- flapjacks, they encounter a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) who mysteriously appears aboard their doomed home. As they contemplate the fate they are not willing to accept, they encounter even more fears in the dark rooms and corridors as well as within the woodsman's tales. The internationally acclaimed cast include Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Céline Bonnier, Charlotte Rampling, Géraldine Chaplin and Luce Vigo.

The Forbidden Room can best be described as an anthology, and as a seemingly psychotropic-induced expansion of Maddin's 2010 installation series of "Hauntings," based on reimagined excerpts from silent films by F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Kenji Mizoguchi that were either destroyed or never actually made it to the screen.

This film is not for the weak of heart or constitution. One story ironically emblazoned in my mind is that of a madman (Udo Kier) who is so obsessed with bottoms that he seeks the help of an even more unstable doctor who repeatedly performs open brain surgery. As he slices out more and more of his cerebellum, the buttock obsession continues to rage with a darkly fiendish climax.

The art direction and soundtrack of The Forbidden Room play quite well together, being tonally sinister yet elegiac and melancholy. The images are reminiscent of hand-tinted black-and-white films and add to the nostalgic sense of this homage to lost or never discovered films. The phenomenal cast chews up the scenery, especially Kier, Chaplin and Rampling with some of them portraying multiple roles.

While not for everyone -- especially when sleep-deprived after marathon screenings at Sundance -- Forbidden Room is sure to reach cult status for Maddin's attitude of coloring outside the lines of great masters. Maddin's worlds are not ones that have to take place on our terrestrial home, but evolve in the feverish imaginations of a dying submarine crew or a man obsessed with women's bottoms.

If you have the constitution and appreciation of old films -- including The Forbidden Zone -- you'll be pleased to know that Kino Lorber has acquired U.S. rights to The Forbidden Room and plans a fall theatrical release. Check back later for my interview with co-directors Maddin and Johnson.