The films of Guy Maddin are always instantly recognizable as his, perhaps more than any other director. They are such delicate homages, often shot in black and white or even silently, that they look like they could be made at the same time as the films they are influenced by if not for some anachronistic language and nudity. They also contain a delicate surrealism through heavy editing and liberal use of fades, dissolves, and superimpositions that place him somewhere less disturbing than David Lynch but less sympathetic than Douglas Sirk. Sometimes the heavy stylization creates a beautiful evocation of memory, a seamless fusion of style and content that conveys the same feelings with which it was surely made, such as My Winnipeg (2008). Other times you end up closer to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), which, despite its dreamy world and well-intentioned melodrama, fails to connect, making for a more indulgent film with its purpose less clear.
His latest film, Keyhole, homage to both gangster movies and to haunted-house films but also a surreal retelling of The Odyssey, falls between the two. It’s Maddin’s first film shot digitally, so it allows for superimpositions of three or even more scenes, depicting movement in one even while the main story stays put and allowing for a fluid integration of dream space, imagined space, and real space, in and across multiple scenes unfolding within the same frame. If it sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. It’s so much, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the story. Essentially, Ulysses, his mistress, and a bound and gagged hostage must work their way through his old house one room at a time as Ulysses fights off or comes to terms with memories in each one so he can finally speak with his wife (Isabella Rossellini) and her naked father that is chained to her bed. Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.
The guiding hand is the father’s voice-over, which tells you most of what just happened or is about to happen. On one hand, it’s a blessing; Keyhole is so over-stylized and spatially disorienting that there would otherwise be no way of knowing what is happening. On the other hand, Keyhole is very concerned with its plot, and despite superimpositions and dissolves being a potent indicator of memory, they shroud the film in far too much confusion to be able to understand what is happening. Keyhole is propelled entirely by its narration, with the memories in each room unfolding like individual vignettes, loosely linked by occasional scenes of Ulysses’ wife and father. Maddin’s surreal dreamscape is fascinating, but without any story to hook you, it also grows old far before Keyhole has played itself out.
This all means that Keyhole plays better in theory than it does as you watch it unfold. It’s not terribly unlike his masterpiece My Winnipeg (2008), but where that film’s jumps in time and space gave it the bittersweet reminiscence with which Maddin narrated it, Keyhole is trying much harder to tell a clear and cohesive narration, which takes away from the phantasmagoria far more than it adds to it. At times, pieces fall into place, and things start to click. There’s a particularly powerful memory in which Ulysses’ son returns home after a long leave and wishes to rearrange the room as it was before he left. Perhaps it’s a bit obvious, but it’s also a multifaceted portrayal of our tendency to glamorize the past as a simpler and happier time. It’s just one piece of a suggestively poetic puzzle, but the big picture looks like a thematic retread of My Winnipeg, albeit one that also recommends you give it repeated viewings. Luckily, the visual audacity and inventiveness is more than enough to make me try again.
Trusting my instincts that another view will make it click, I have chosen not to rate Keyhole yet.