“What’s a city without its ghosts?” pondered Guy Maddin towards the end of his sublime docu-fantasia My Winnipeg (2007). Maddin’s latest work, Keyhole, which premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, poses similar questions. Not in relation to an entire city this time but rather to a family domicile, a house in which the living and the dead seem to share a seamless, if hardly frictionless, existence. As the venerable Loyd Grossman would inquire: "Who lives in a house like this?"
Keyhole received a lukewarm-to-hostile critical reception at the TIFF, and it’s not hard to see why. For, after My Winnipeg’s relative accessibility, this is, I think, one of Maddin’s most demanding, elusive, and, at times, maddening works, a movie which, in the director’s delicious phrase, “pushes the abstract-o-meter into the red.” Developed from a short film, Keyhole offers enough wigged-out weirdness, melodramatic flights of fancy and psycho-sexual shenanigans to sustain several Maddin features, and to make the likes of The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) look positively streamlined by comparison. The movie is impossible to grasp in its entirety on a first viewing. But on initial acquaintance I’d venture to say that it’s one of Maddest richest and deepest efforts, a film that, if not quite a masterpiece, nonetheless attests once more to the director’s particular, peculiar genius.
Amusingly, Keyhole apparently evolved from Maddin’s desire to make a more accessible kind of feature: a genre film that would satisfy distributors concerned about his work’s unmarketability. But what’s resulted instead - not entirely unsurprisingly - is a giddily self-conscious genre mash-up: a combo of spook story, quest narrative and gangster flick filtered through Gaston Bachelard-influenced spatial theories and augmented with yet more melodramatised revelations from the Maddin family closet. It opens with a shoot-out: a gang of gangsters firing their way into a building that turns out to be the home of their boss, one Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric). As the motley crew of cronies scheme, squabble and spoon, the amnesiac Pick ventures through the rooms of the house, in search of his estranged wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini). He’s accompanied on this expedition by a blind, drowned girl, Denny (Brooke Palsson), and, more significantly still, by a bound-and-gagged kidnap victim (David Wontner) who turns out to be Pick’s very own son.
In a pre-screening video message that replaced the BFI Q&A that he was sadly unable to attend, Maddin extended the viewer something of an interpretive helping hand through the Keyhole labyrinth, noting how the movie evolved from a recurrent dream involving his deceased father. It’s no surprise then that, like all the best ghost stories, Keyhole feels rooted in loss and grief, even if its resonances remain tantalisingly elusive for the most part. With their wholesale evocations of and excavations from the deepest reaches of the cinematic past, Maddin’s movies have often felt like haunted houses of sorts, works possessed by the spirits of past scenes and stars and styles. Keyhole pushes that approach in its logical direction to create a work that feels, very often, entirely illogical. As so often with Maddin, the tone shifts rapidly, disorientatingly, from absurdism to menace to melancholy, from the lurid to the oblique. And as always, individual scenes and set-pieces startle: a ghostly fellatio performed on an ornamental penis and a bicycle-powered electrocution are just two of the standouts here.
Performances are variable in their effectiveness, but Patric, Rossellini, Udo Kier (as a doctor with his own story of loss to impart) and Louis Negin (a dominating presence as Rossellini’s cackling, chained and whip-wielding father) are as vivid as can be, with Palsson and Wonter equally strong. The movie riffs through so many layers of association and resonance that it becomes quite overwhelming (though never, I would argue, exhausting). And the final twenty minutes - with their twisty-turny almost-revelations about just who might be haunting who - are as unnerving and ultimately as moving as any in Maddin’s cinema. While Keyhole seems destined to be dismissed in some quarters as an empty bag o’ tricks, I found it to be a profoundly disquieting and exciting piece of work. In a movie that’s deeply concerned with space - and that draws parallels between the topography of a home and that of a psyche (“So many locked doors. And they all have to be opened!”) - Maddin generously offers the viewer a huge amount of interpretive space here, spurring memories of our own dreams and fears and fantasies. Keyhole is a self-consciously haunted and haunting experience, one that confounds, exasperates, bewilders and beguiles by turns. I’m excited to revisit it at the earliest opportunity.
Keyhole is released in the UK on 14th September.
Keyhole is released in the UK on 14th September.