Lots of new films have “room” in the title. So weird.
FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
In the next two weeks we’ve got Guy Maddin’s surreal The Forbidden Room at the RPL, plus Daniel Barber’s slightly slimy The Keeping Room playing. If we knew for sure Emma Donoghue’s kidnapping/captivity thriller Room was opening here in the next couple of weeks that’d be three Rooms for Regina. Ah well, two will have to do. Here are my reviews.
Maddin’s Many Strange Rooms
The Forbidden Room
RPL Film Theatre
Trying to explain the plot of a Guy Maddin movie is a thankless task. From the bizarre mockumentary My Winnipeg to the feverish Keyhole, one would be hard pressed to understand how Maddin’s mind work. His movies are to be experienced, not analyzed (unless you have a lot of time on your hands, and at least a rudimentary knowledge of semiotics).
Alongside David Lynch, Maddin is one of the few contemporary English language directors exploring surrealism these days, and he’s certainly more prolific than his American counterpart. Despite his films’ small budgets, Maddin’s fame precedes him. A number of recognizable faces pop up in The Forbidden Room (Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric), some in minuscule roles. Such is the draw of the Manitoba native.
In a weird way, The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s most accessible film to date, mainly because it’s comprised of a number of loosely related shorts, each one crazier than the next. The framing is provided by a submarine on the verge of exploding. The crew rescues a man (Roy Dupuis, Shake Hands with the Devil) whose origin story involves a bloodthirsty group of aboriginals who have kidnapped his beloved, yet she seems more in control than any of her captors.
From that point on, Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson take us down the rabbit hole. Using flashbacks, newspapers clippings, and every narrative device at their disposal, the filmmakers build a jigsaw puzzle without a solution.
More than a dozen tales intersect in a myriad of ways, peppered by the educational series, “How To Take A Bath”. In one, an increasingly irritating ghost shows up at dinnertime to haunt his family. In another, an accident-prone girl (Caroline Dhavernas) gets all her bones broken twice and falls for her doctor both times.
The movie often flirts with absurdity, a circumstance that makes it a lot more palatable than it might otherwise be. The Forbidden Room is also aided by its episodic and random, dreamlike nature. If you don’t like a storyline, rest assured there’s another one just around the corner. However, by clocking in at just over two hours, the film overstays its welcome, particularly when you don’t know if there is an end to this cavalcade of madness.
By using faux old celluloid, silent cinema title cards and old-fashioned special effects, Maddin creates a unique, anything-goes reality in which rationality serves no purpose. There is undeniable artistry to The Forbidden Room, but I have doubts it amounts to anything.
Barber’s Room Of Shame
The Keeping Room
RPL Film Theatre
Six years ago, director Daniel Barber made quite a splash with his first movie, Harry Brown. The film starred Michael Caine as a retired soldier who was sick of the thugs terrorizing his neighborhood, and reminded audiences of just how badass and unrepentant Caine could be. Harry Brown was far from a masterpiece, but Barber did provoke comparisons with other down-and-dirty British filmmakers of yore.
Barber pretty much disappeared… until now. His new film, The Keeping Room, is (at least in theory) a feminist western with racial undertones. What unfolds on the screen, though, is a deeply uncomfortable flick fueled by the threat of rape for most of its length.
In the midst of the American Civil War, two Southern sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and a former slave (Muna Otaru) scramble to survive on an isolated farm after the men left to fight and never came back. Their dire situation gets even worse when two renegade Union soldiers target the eldest sibling and follow her home.
The film does a good job building tension from the get-go and the denouement doesn’t unfold as expected, which in these days of extreme predictability is a plus. The problem is a different one. Issues like changing gender roles and race relations are insinuated, but not developed. It feels as if the film is pretending to be deeper than it actually is.
It’s not hard to reimagine The Keeping Room as an exploitation flick. But by choosing a half-assed approach (name-checking a social issue is not enough), it comes across as hypocritical. It’s not boring, but you might feel like you need a shower afterwards.