There are few things as futile (or daunting) as trying to make sense on paper of a Guy Maddin film. Save for My Winnipeg, which given its relative specificity and coherent narration serving almost as commentary for the flood of images, his films are a tough nut to crack.
Yet unlike many films that fall into the general rubric of "avant garde" or "experimental", Maddin's films differ greatly. Firstly, if anything the films are delightfully retrograde rather than at the vanguard, a future/past hybrid that sees echoes of expressionism and early cinema thrust onto modern screens. In lesser hands this would be hipster fetish fodder, no more than an affectation like luxurious beards, bowler hats, and a penchant for shellac recordings on '78.
For while Maddin's films can broadly be considered to have a "shtick", it's one that's both inviting and entertaining. This is the key, the part that needs to be underlined - his films may be batshit crazy, but they're funny and charming in their weirdness, not overtly hostile to an audience or esoteric simply to have some declare the work as profound.
In some ways The Forbidden Room is the most complex of Maddin's narratives. Along with co-director Evan Johnson (who previously had done camera work on My Winnipeg and was responsible for some of the visual effects on this film), Maddin tells the story of a group of men aboard a submarine. From this point the fractal narrative unfolds in spiraling ways, flashbacks within flashbacks, asides and counter stories interweaving like leaves in a forest.
At one point we see the dreams of a volcano, another we get a story told by the shorn moustache cut from the dead body of a character played by Udo Kier. It's this overt preposterousness that makes the puzzle box of a film so much fun. It's like you're taking a rollercoaster ride with your eyes blindfolded - you can feel the twists and turns but never quite sure at any point in time where you are in space.
The Forbidden Room 's onslaught of images and sound, with its equally chaotic plot structure, is most certainly not to everyone's taste. At Sundance they didn't even bother with a press screening, and at the public screening I was at half the paying audience got up to leave. Yet for those in on the fun, those laughing along as poison-soaked skeleton unitards were used to extract a signature from one hapless character, or chuckling as the melting Melting MELTING of the explosives kept ticking away within the sea vessel, the film was simply a blast worthy of sustained applause.
I thought of those timelines that people drew for Inception or Primer, trying for those who got lost in those relatively linear storylines to make sense of the diagetic flow. With The Forbidden Room the timeline sketch would look like a cardoigram, it's to-and-fro chronoscape as violent as any fight scene portrayed in the film.
It's fair that you've never seen anything quite like this movie, save for the last time you watched Maddin have fun with the medium of cinema. The palate of his work has been expanded (now we're getting a bunch of shots in colour!), but at its core there's a delightful playfulness and astonishing craft at work here. The irony of a work titled The Forbidden Room is that it's actually an inviting film, welcoming you in to spend some time being bombarded by sound and vision elements that are fragmented and obscure yet delightfully amusing. There's no cynicism or arrogance in the telling, it's just a bunch of weirdness shoved into a package called "feature film" that allows one to travel back in time.
With cascades of causality, the film feels like an avalanche of images and storylines. Many will be unwilling to give it a shot, but for the adventurous or the masochistic Maddin's latest ride is a hell of a lot of fun. I'd say that you should simply strap in and let it take you on a journey you won't soon forget.