June 29th 2012 02:48
Where to begin with Guy Maddin’s latest work? The provocative Canadian auteur has conjured something intense, elliptical and peculiar from the limitless depths of his imagination for Keyhole (2011), a noirish drama set in a single location – a mansion – but with a myriad of literal and psychological cul-de-sacs into which its characters are tempted or tumble.
Words fail to do justice to Keyhole; from the outset it’s like being submerged into a charcoal-tinged fever dream where anything or nothing is possible. Jason Patric is Ulysses Pick, leader of a criminal gang seen shooting their way into a house in the opening sequence. Reassessing the damage done to their crew they wait for Pick to join them. When he does his objective is kept close to his chest but it seems to involve delving into the depths of the house to unlock a mystery about which none of his men or femme fatales has a clue.
Meanwhile somewhere in the house’s depths, his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) waits in a bed with her manacled, naked father Camille (Louis Negin). Ulysses makes his way unsystematically through the house, communicating with Hyacinth via whispered queries but for the most part getting no closer to his goal. Occasionally the pair comes face to face but these scenes evaporate as though dream sequences.
This is very much a haunted house, teeming with malingering ghosts, full of locked doors suggesting pathways both literally and figuratively blocked. Maddin inserts moments of off-putting dark humour, including sexually candid ones which seem like unnecessary provocation. Logic is not a pursuit in the director’s universe; the blazing, meandering narrative tosses scorn in the face of convention, trawling the subconscious for allusive markers. Perhaps it’s an alternate world where appearances have been altered (Ulysses, for example can’t even recognise one of his own sons) – a transformative hell into which Ulysses has been mired as punishment? But for what? A sin of paternal neglect? Dereliction of duty to his wife? A betrayal for which he cannot be forgiven?
What does any of it mean? Perhaps nothing, which may not be such a damaging conclusion, for elucidation may be just the thing that proves its downfall. Further muddying the waters is an offhand remark attributed to Maddin’s in which he jokingly suggests the film is a free adaptation of the Wikipedia page of The Odyssey which is sure to have keen scholars scurrying into the darkest, dustiest corners of their literary stacks for clues to a deeper knowledge.
Despite the absence of anything commensurate with conventional or even rational filmmaking, Keyhole is not without fascination despite, you may argue, the toll it takes on one’s sanity attempting to qualify every visual and verbal non-sequitur. It’s a typically challenging puzzle of a film from Maddin, full of rapid cutting, unsettling perspectives and the choppy rhythms of a patient free associating from a within a labyrinth of disorienting nightmares.
As conductor of his orchestra Maddin insists on one discordant note after another being struck but the cacophony it sustains is not an entirely unpleasant sound. As the old man’s words resound like a broken chime: “Remember, Ulysses, remember”, we can only ask ourselves, just as the stoic Ulysses must, are they a plea or a warning?
Keyhole screens at Melbourne's ACMI cinemas from July 5-27 as part of Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin. Full details can be found HERE.
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