Canadian director Guy Madden has described Keyhole as his most narrative-driven film to date. In spite of this claim, the film frequently dispenses with the sort of narrative conventions that allow a plot to be followed easily by any audience. It is a film that combines seemingly disparate elements such as American gangster films, Greek mythology and surrealism in a story that unfolds like a dream.
The film follows Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), a gangster whose wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) has locked herself up in an attic room in the family home. Inside this room, she has her father chained naked to a bed. The opening titles of the film are intercut with shots of a rain-soaked shootout between a group of gangsters and the police. The criminal gang retreat to Pick’s house, as previously arranged. Pick arrives at the house with an unidentified male hostage and Denny (Brooke Palsson), a girl who can read his mind and who claims to be in a perpetual state of drowning. Pick’s first name is a clear reference to the hero in Homer’s The Odyssey, and the central narrative of the film follows his odyssey through the house to reach Hyacinth.
The look of the film is clearly designed to evoke the aesthetics of American film noir. With the exception of a few brief moments, the film is presented in monochrome. The noir style also extends to other aspects of the mise-en-scène, including period costumes, character dialogue and the seemingly endless rainfall. However, the digital photography and electronic swells of the soundtrack ensure that this aesthetic is more an imitation of film noir than a fully-fledged re-creation. Maddin’s style has been compared to that of David Lynch but perhaps their similarity is the result of the influence of Surrealist master Luis Buñuel.
Buñuel believed cinema to be the medium of art that could most effectively portray the workings of the unconscious mind. Keyhole strives to do just that. Events unfold like streams of consciousness in a non-linear fashion and characters often appear without any form of logical explanation. The environment of the film has an expressionist quality that may indicate that these events are all part of a dream, and perhaps also that the characters occupy some form of purgatory. Events in the film can be likened to a series of fractured memories that begins to converge into a more complete picture as the story progresses. This structure can make it difficult to empathise with as they exist as fragments for much of the film.
Given that it appears to be the construct of the unconscious mind, it may not be surprising to learn that the film is populated by images that are both strange and, at times, potentially disturbing. Such images include lingering shots of male and female nudity, moments of apparent rape, and a startling moment where a ghost performs an explicit sexual act.
Guy Maddin once remarked that it was his ambition with his films to create “beauty, placidity and exquisite strangeness”. Keyhole is certainly strange, and can be a mesmerising experience. To call it beautiful or exquisite is a rather more subjective statement; Keyhole is something of an acquired taste. Some viewers may be discouraged by what feels at times like an impenetrable work, or by the film’s provocative imagery. On the other hand, viewers who are partial to this type of film will understand that much of the enjoyment comes from admiring its form and contemplating its mysteries.