Isabella Rossellini with a prosthetic glass leg filled with beer. Bram Stoker’s famed Dracula performed as a ballet. Smallpox, cannibals, orphans, demented mothers. You certainly can’t mistake a Guy Maddin film, that’s for sure. Filmed predominantly in black and white through camera lenses seemingly laid thick with Vaseline, Maddin is (to be infinitely reductive) the Canadian David Lynch, a sort of mad man experimenter of the big screen whose tales of life’s oddities take on dreamlike, otherworldly properties. His latest is Keyhole, a perplexing murder mystery populated by (I think) ghosts and Maddin’s definition of an all-star cast – that’d be Maddin favourite Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), plus Udo Kier (Melancholia) and Jason Patric (er, Speed 2: Cruise Control?) – that almost acts as the director’s rebuke of the global acclaim and clout he achieved thanks to his stunning 2007 docudrama, My Winnipeg. Mission accomplished if that was the case; Keyhole is frustrating in its vague haze of nonsensical illusions (he himself has called it “abstract”), but it does prove that Maddin continues to be one of the most singular voices in modern cinema. For better or for worse.
I haven’t seen all of the curious Canadian’s work, and that’s where the Australian Centre for the Movie Image (ACMI) comes in. From 5 July to 27 July this Melbourne landmark will be running “Nocturnal Transmissions – The Cinema of Guy Maddin”, a retrospective devoted to the beguiling, the maddening, the unfathomable, and the wonderfully delirious movies of Guy Maddin. Rarely seen outside of film festivals, his works are usually breathtaking in their strangeness and reward a viewer who is willing to dig deep as a measure of processing whatever it is that he’s thrown in front of them. I look forward to seeing his own version of The Princess Bride with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989), the technicolour “epic” Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), his ode to ice hockey Cowards Bend The Knee (2003), and his Russian-set mistaken identity tale Archangel (1990). It’s all terribly exciting and the sort of thing that audiences don’t get enough of (although my bank balance would be utterly terrified at the thought of more).
As evidence of his films’ rarity, I have personally only seen a few of his works and they’re all from recent years. While it’s arguable that My Winnipeg is his most respected and perhaps even more conventional film – I saw it at the Melbourne International Film Festival on a cold winter’s night and it could not have been a more appropriate setting – I tend to err on the side of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary as my personal favourite Maddin title. I recently wrote about this 2002 curio for the Canadian film festival Possible Worlds and noted that “(p)irouettes, arm extensions and lifts are just the surface of Maddin’s Dracula… as he navigates the vampyr myth like none have ever done before.” It’s a silent picture, mostly in black and white, and told exclusively through the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s faultless choreography. It’s Dracula as you’ve never seen it before and my what a way to see it! The Saddest Music in the World is similarly an altogether eccentric musical about a beer baron’s effort to find the world’s saddest song is light, but features some wonderful moments as Maddin films are want to do.
Alongside Maddin’s feature films, the ACMI retrospective will feature 13 of his short films as well as personally curated double features. Keyhole, for instance, screens alongside Nobuhiko Obayashi’s deranged 1977 cult classic Housu; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic Vampyr plays with Gimli Hospital; Jose Mojica Marins’ gory This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse screens alongside Dracula; Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo plays with Archangel. Maddin surely knows what he’s doing so the combinations must work a treat. Nocturnal Transmissions is a festival not to be missed for Maddin fans and newcomers alike. His films are strange, but also unique, and the chance to see them on the big screen (all screened in glorious 35mm if available) is one that will surely never come around again.