The Forbidden Room is not your average film, even for the arthouse cinema scene. It is essentially a series of vignettes, which, rather than occurring linearly one after another, interweave. In one segment a character will have a dream which itself becomes a completely different film. Some of these vignettes appear for five or ten minutes in their entirety and then disappear; others become framing narratives for their successors. Actors appear in multiple segments, sometimes playing the same characters, sometimes as dreamlike reinterpretations of earlier characters, and sometimes in completely new roles. The only real connections are the themes of love, family and repression and the constant aesthetic choices of excessive close-ups, warped film, and highly exaggerated colours. It is a truly unique cinematic experience.
This, of course, is all well and good. The question is not “is this a film with a difference?”, but “does it work?” The answer to the former is a resounding “yes”, so if that is what you want from a film, then go and catch it now before it leaves cinemas. But, when making such an ambitious experimental project, a filmmaker always walks a knife-edge between inspired transcendence and messy self-indulgence, and it is unclear which of these Guy Maddin achieves with The Forbidden Room.
Certainly, there are a lot of very interesting ideas and visuals at play. The film grew out of an art project dealing with lost silent films, and each section appears as its own fragment that is pieced together into a larger puzzle. What’s surprising about this approach is that it would be easy to fall into the trap of overstating its messages or becoming needlessly obscure. Maddin manages to avoid both these issues, largely due to his film having an enjoyably cheeky sense of humour that keeps it feeling light and unburdened. As a result, a number of the sections are particularly enjoyable due, such as an especially amusing musical lobotomy sketch. There are some inspired visual elements throughout the film as well: the opening titles jump between different art styles as a synecdoche-like miniature of the film’s overall aesthetic; one character is completely obscured by film burn and a particularly risqué joke is made by over-laying footage of a train entering a tunnel on top of an x-ray of a woman’s pelvis. These are but three examples of many scattered throughout the film.
The word “scattered” is important, though; as brilliant as certain elements are, they’re spread quite thinly. There are long sections with awkward, almost Brechtian performances that make the characters very difficult to connect with. This is somewhat the point, but when the film has no plot and the visual style is so dreamlike, it is easy to become disconnected and let your mind drift. A striking detail will grab your attention momentarily, but generally the film ends up being mildly tedious, which for a piece with so many great elements is unfortunate. The sections might share slight thematic similarities, but each is a bit too shallow in itself and they end up feeling like completely different projects that don’t entirely fit together. Most could be removed without affecting the film’s messages, plot or style at all, leading to the film having no distinct sense of pace or purpose.
When writing this review, I realised I felt more rewarded thinking about The Forbidden Room than actually watching it. Upon leaving the cinema, the more tedious aspects fade from memory while the clever and inventive ideas stick with you. Therefore, I suggest that the film would be best watched by either a creative individual whose work it would inspire, or by a group, who could discuss its more successful ideas together after. On its own, the film is fascinating, but highly flawed, while its effects are powerful and its influence lasting.