“It’s just not in my nature to master naturalistic storytelling,” says cult Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. You can say that again, replies TARA BRADY
‘AS ECCENTRIC AS my work might seem, I don’t go around on a penny farthing,” Guy Maddin assures us.
We’ll take him at his word, although we’re secretly disappointed. When it comes to this most extraordinary Canadian film-maker, we’re inclined to believe that anything – up to and including travel by antiquated velocipede – is possible. For more than 20 years, Maddins phantasmagoric, psychosexual tales of Soviet supermen, unrequited love, cannibalism, arctic tundra, amnesia and ice hockey have enlivened festivals and arthouses. A best-kept secret among cinephiles, Maddin’s oeuvre sounds out around the movieverse like Arthur Russell’s cello or Daniel Johnson’s ditties.
His films draw from fragments of dreams – sometimes his own, sometimes his daughter’s – to form wild, triply fantasias. Tales From the Gimli Hospital transforms the rivalries between two psychiatric patients into an Icelandic saga; Cowards Bend the Knee turns an iconic silent era keyhole lens on peep-show tales of abortion and sports; The Saddest Music in the World sees a glass-legged Baroness preside over a beersponsored event to find the eponymous evocative composition.
Maddin’s latest film, Keyhole, refashions Homer into a ghostly gangster picture that sees Jason Patric’s Ulysses rendezvous with his cohorts at a house where his estranged wife (Maddin regular Isabella Rossellini) keeps her naked father chained to a bed. A half-drowned girl, who hovers between life and death like Schrodinger’s cat, plays oracle and guide as our hero attempts to negotiate a structure with unreliable dimensions and an indeterminate number of chambers.
“I’ve always been a dilettante about the classics,” says Maddin. “But in recent years, while looking for plots to steal, I realised while reading Euripides that Greek mythology was just like Archie comics. They’re both wonderful and gorgeous and easy to read and you can find yourself in them. All those lusts for Betty and Veronica are right there on the page – but more homicidally. I also liked the fact that plays that were written 2,500 years ago were about the relationships from which you just barely escape with your life.”
Archie Comics? Really?
“I love Archie Comics,” he says. “I’d love to do a film adaptation. I’ve read a million hours of comics, but unfortunately I have trouble talking to comic-book people because I never really read DC or Marvel. I liked Classics Illustrated and Archie Comics. I can’t go to conventions. I’d get bullied by someone wearing a phaser for a belt.”
So Keyhole is a Freudian-Greek-mobster-ghost-noir-melodrama via Archie Comics?
“Yes,” agrees the film’s director, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor. “Well, I’ve often been advised by friends that I should work in a genre. So I decided to make the classic Freudian, Greek mobster family melodrama. It’s a genre that maybe exists in Mexico when certain crazed telenovelas fall into a Petri dish and go mad. I certainly feel as if I’m working in a genre that many have worked in before, but I know those feelings are the artifacts of overprescribing doctors and a mildew addiction I developed as a child. It’s just not in my nature to master naturalistic storytelling and naturalistic direction of actors.”
In a film defined by wacky humour (“This kind of weather stirs me up: Man’s weather,” notes Ulysses as he stares through a noir-friendly window) and freaky happenstance, the setting is Keyhole’s most discombobulating feature. In common with Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Robert Heinlein’s And He Built A Crooked House, Keyhole offers an epic, room-by-room adventure. Just how far does that rattling chain go, anyway? And how might a real-estate agent quantify the dwelling’s mysterious attributes?