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Guy Maddin reluctantly returns to his childhood home, an abandoned Canadian island, where his parents ran an orphanage. As Guy fulfills his dying mother's request to paint the lighthouse which served as the orphanage, memories of strange events there overpower him. An undercover investigation by child author/detective Wendy & a revolt by the repressed children, blew open a cover-up by Guy's parents. Wendy disguised herself as her brother Chance and discovered that Maddin's inventor father performed outré scientific experiments on the orphans. Written by
This is an undeniably powerful film, for all its unorthodoxy; but the only word I could really find to describe it, again and again, was "bizarre". Bizarre to such a degree that, in the demented world shown here, even the most impossible and incredible occurrences can be accepted and taken for granted as part of the plot -- after the first five minutes or so, with the atmosphere of mad-scientist exploitation schlock firmly established, the audience were apparently taking the film on its own terms, over-the-top intertitles, tendentious voice-over, feverish cutting and all. The laughs that followed were not for the fraught nature of the story-telling, but in response to the deliberately scripted jokes inserted in the scenario: the hamster simulating a scientist, the butter stuck on the wall, the corpse in a harp.
The picture is shot, intentionally, at extremely low quality, more akin to closed-circuit TV than Super-8 home movies, let alone the silver/midnight shimmer of the silent screen. (This indistinct resolution is perhaps just as well, since the imagery includes some material rather more explicit than I'm comfortable with.) The acting, on the other hand, is fully up to the standard of the silent era; a contemptuous turn of the head, a self-pitying look, the dawning of a sudden idea, all explicit without a word... and the director clearly understands how to tell a story without resorting to pantomime or wordy scripts. The intertitles are consciously overwrought and populated by an insane density of exclamation marks, but never unnecessary or over-long.
In fact, I felt that the picture would very probably have been better if shot entirely as a silent with synchronised effects; especially at the beginning, the voice-over becomes actively intrusive, breaking into the flow and repeating or pre-empting what is being equally and much more elegantly expressed by the use of imagery, background sound and a few economically-written title cards. The impression given is that the director was afraid of losing his audience if he started off with a purely silent-style presentation, and added a superfluous narrating track on top -- unfortunately, the voice-over is not quite redundant and cannot be omitted, since it conveys certain important pieces of information that are not otherwise apparent. The combination is awkward.
This jarring effect, however, may of course be intentional. Another recurrent 'tic' is the way that many intertitle screens are displayed twice, in a sort of visual stammer: once in an almost subliminal flash and then a second time, long enough for slow readers to take them in. I assume this is some kind of reference to the frequently reiterated theme that all things happen twice, or can be made to repeat themselves... or else is simply deployed for its disorienting effect! The visual style of the film, with its distressed footage, weird camera angles, and spasmodic cuts back to significant motifs, reminded me of experimental film I'd seen from the 1960s. The difference is that this picture engages the audience, creates meaningful characters and actually tells a coherent story with emotional content, wild and lurid or not. For all its parody and sheer weirdness it manages to succeed on a cinematic level rather than as an abstract avant-garde statement. And it manages to get us to swallow some quite incredible scenarios with a straight face. The director clearly has a gift for world-building and a feel for visual narrative: this isn't really my type of film, but if it were not a contradiction in terms I'd love to see him take on a subject in a more 'straight' silent style, with less visual damage (though I suspect this may be an aid to disguising an ultra-low budget), less heavy-breathing potential, and above all less frenetic pop-video cutting. As another reviewer has commented, Maddin can compose beautiful shots... it's just that we never get to see any of them for longer than a few seconds.
But I assume that such an ambition is unrealistic, as I imagine that it is his trademark presentation that gets the audience to swallow silent film at all these days.
"Brand Upon the Brain!" is a considerable achievement, and has already made sufficient stir in the United States for me to have picked it out by title from a strand of London Film Festival programming I wouldn't normally dream of attending (and, looking round at familiar faces in the auditorium, I may not have been the only one!) It isn't entirely to my taste, which is why I've knocked a point off the rating I would otherwise have given it, but as an experience it was otherwise definitely worth the entrance price.
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