Guy Maddin, cinema’s contemporary master surrealist, has returned with another feature that unfolds like a dream while exploring Freudian symptoms of psychic malaise. Though still influenced by early silent cinema, Keyhole seems like Maddin’s chattiest film yet. He still works with black and white images, and it suits the film’s scenes well. Keyhole brings to life a haunted house where all the occupants seem to be ghosts. Fittingly, shadows are a great part of the cinematography, and Maddin knows how to make the most of black and white to highlight the relationship between light and darkness. In the right hands, shadows are laden with subtext, and here comes a film far beyond literal interpretation using that and many other aspects of cinema to their utmost potential. Maddin has only made one film in color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and seems most comfortable in black and white.
This is an adventure story. The quest is as fantastical, human and emotional as anyone could conjure from both the unconsciousness of the dream world or waking, traumatic life experiences following the finality of a loved one’s fatal loss. After death, how does one make amends? That’s what the ghosts of Keyhole are illustrating. This is what ghosts do when people are not looking. If they are creepy, it only comes from the mystery of their origin. Keyhole is something far more abstract, complex and deep than a horror film.
The darkest, most mysterious character must be the patriarch of the clan (Louis Negin) and father-in-law of the hero, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) searching to reconnect with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a life of crime, adultery and neglect. The patriarch, whose craggy wrinkles even cast shadows on his own features, is fittingly credited with two obtuse names: Calypso and Camille. Wearing only white briefs or arbitrarily nothing at all, Calypso / Camille is never seen without a thick chain draped over his body. “I’m a part of the house,” he says early in the film. “It would be misleading to say I live here.” Between his solitary creeping around in some distant chamber of the large home, whispering, “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” Ulysses arrives in search of Hyacinth. The film opens with multiple layers of superimposed scenery and the cacophony of a shootout. The images blur and flash in quick cuts. All the while, images of the old man appear, as he whispers: “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” It makes for an abstract, expressive set-up. After the shootout, Maddin shows his wit and profundity by having a character ask all of those inside the home to line up against a wall. Those who have died in the shootout are told to face the wall. He tells them to go to the morgue, and they walk out of the scene. “They’re the lucky ones,” someone says. For, as the film will show, death is not a solution in this movie at all, and, as the ghostly father notes, “forgiveness [is] much worse than revenge.”
Maddin does more than flashy cinematic tricks to channel the surreal. He creates atmosphere in subtler ways as well. The voices are warped or have a strange flat quality with no echo, like early talkies. Jason Staczek’s orchestral score seems to emerge from another dimension. The instruments vary from horns to piano to vibes. They play dynamic melodies that sometimes warp and stretch and do not always gibe with the images. Sometimes they seem to emit from some distant radio, off-screen.
The setting of a large home with many rooms makes for the ideal setting for Ulysses’ quest to return to his wife and sons. Rooms in dreams are symbolic of the unconscious, and distances covered by Ulysses inside the home seem extended beyond earthbound physics. He arrives carrying a drowned woman over his shoulder, Denny (Brooke Palsson). It takes a long time for him to cover the ground between the front door into the dining area where a host of gangsters and hostages await him. Though Denny is blind, she provides a psychic guide for him through the home. The home feels labyrinthine, as the quest continues from room to room and encounter to encounter. Ulysses also carries his son Manners (David Wontner), who spends most of the film gagged and bound to a chair. There is even a swampy garden secluded among the interior’s twists and turns, where more traumas lurk buried under a pond of murky water.
Though it plums some dark depths of the psyche, Keyhole still has room for humor. At one point in his quest, Ulysses is weighed down by carrying a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Maddin glazes over the de rigueur phallic symbol in a witty moment as Denny leads Ulysses down a hall. They approach a small erect penis protruding out of a wall. “Cyclops ahead,” deadpans the girl.
“That penis is getting dusty,” notes Ulysses matter-of-factly, as he passes it by.
The actors serve the film well. Their faces are filled with mystery and sometimes a subtle befuddlement. Maybe they are trying to make sense of the dialogue, which still works for this film that explores the dream world even better and more honestly than Inception. Sure, the film seems incongruous, as its logic, like the best dreams, never allows the viewer any insight toward where it is headed. Maddin constantly changes the rules of the narrative. By doing so, he heightens and maintains the mystery throughout the film as marvelous sequences parade by. No one should expect any concrete, definitive answers in a film by Guy Maddin, just a bold and confident expression of the complexity of human relationships. Keyhole captures the Maddin tradition well and exploits the potency of cinema as the physical, temporal manifestation of dreams.
Keyhole is Rated R and runs 94 min. Opens Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It opens at the same time in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. It is also currently showing at select theaters across the US.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)