Anyone who’s ever fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole—clicking on one article, then being distracted by another topic linked within, and then another topic linked within that topic, until it’s hours later and you can no longer remember what you were curious about to begin with and it takes 37 clicks of the back arrow to escape—will feel a sense of déjà vu watching Guy Maddin’s labyrinthine The Forbidden Room. Co-directed with Evan Johnson (who’d previously worked as a camera operator on My Winnipeg), the film is shot in Maddin’s signature style, as an homage to silent and early sound cinema… but with a vengeance. The title sequence alone, for example, replicates at least a dozen archaic opening-credits templates, sometimes changing from one to another mid-credit. And each of The Forbidden Room’s many nested narratives was inspired by an actual lost film from early in cinema history. In some cases, Maddin and Johnson have adapted an extant synopsis; in others, only a titillating title survives, and they’ve invented an absurdist story to fit it. The result isn’t necessarily Maddin’s best film, but it’s certainly his most film.
Consequently, summarizing “what it’s about” is a nearly impossible task. A hilarious prelude features Maddin regular Louis Negin—who, like many of the actors here, will play multiple roles—narrating an instructional film about how to take a bath, inspired by a lost 1937 short film actually called How To Take A Bath. Following that, the movie proper seems to begin, involving a group of men trapped in a submarine with 500 pounds of depressurized “blasting jelly,” unable to surface without blowing themselves up. This story is entertainingly ridiculous in and of itself—it has the men trying to conserve oxygen by eating pancakes, on the theory that pancakes have large pockets of air. It gets even sillier when a hatch opens—at the bottom of the ocean—and a bewildered woodsman (Roy Dupuis) stumbles onto the sub. He proceeds to tell the other men his bizarre story, triggering a flashback. Then another flashback gets triggered within his story. Then another, and then another. Ultimately, The Forbidden Room gets so far up its own ass that it requires a series of consecutive climaxes to find its way back out.
A few movies have attempted something like this before (most notably The Saragossa Manuscript, a Polish film from 1965), but not with this degree of deliberate insanity. The Forbidden Room was shot mostly at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, piecemeal, in front of a live audience, following which Maddin and Johnson artfully distressed the digital footage and added priceless intertitles. The project took advantage of whichever actors were available to it on a given day, making it far and away Maddin’s most star-studded picture (albeit mostly with French stars); Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Caroline Dhavernas, Charlotte Rampling, Adèle Haenel, and Ariane Labed are among the folks who show up, often just for one mini-narrative. For those attuned to Maddin’s goofy sense of humor, it’s easily the funniest movie he’s ever made—a series of several dozen comic shorts strung together on a ludicrous clothesline. The only downside is that the experience, at just shy of two hours, can be a trifle exhausting. At a certain point, before it starts the journey back to the submarine, The Forbidden Room feels as if it may just go on forever, telling every story from Jorge Luis Borges’ Library Of Babel (an imaginary building, much larger than our universe, containing every possible book). But that’s the nature of a rabbit hole.