Decades before “The Artist,” Canadian director Guy Maddin was mining the look, feel and sound of silent cinema and early talkies for his stylish and provocative films. When “Grindhouse” directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were deliberately putting scratches and missing frames into their film to make it look like an old print from the 1970s, they were picking up tricks that Maddin was doing back in the ’90s with early films like “Careful” and “Archangel.”
Maddin’s new film “Keyhole” reminds us that his aesthetic owes as much to David Lynch as it does to F.W. Murnau, and not just because Lynch’s onetime muse Isabella Rossellini co-stars. (Rossellini previously starred in Maddin’s “The Saddest Music in the World,” as a beer heiress who wore two glass legs filled with the foamy brew. Yeah, it’s like that.)
This new film keeps the audience guessing as to whether what we’re seeing is really happening, or a delusion, or the dream of a madman.
Narrator Calypso (Louis Negin) is a ghost — or maybe he’s a crazy old man chained up in the attic of the house where mobster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) comes in from the rain with the bedraggled Denny (Brooke Palsson), who may or may not be able to read Ulysses’ thoughts. Despite the fact that the police are surrounding the place, and his henchmen are holding a hostage (who may or may not be the gangster’s son), Ulysses has returned to rescue his wife Hyacinth (Rossellini), who’s up in the attic with her father, Calypso.
Is Hyacinth still alive? Is Ulysses? Is everyone in the movie a ghost? Do they merely exist in Ulysses’ imagination? Or Calypso’s? And why does Calypso keep repeating the phrase “Remember your disease”?
As is generally the case with Maddin’s extravagant phantasmagoria, plot and story take a backseat to the extraordinary images on display. Memories literally fade into nothing, faces are projected onto billowing curtains, and the hallways of the creepy house lead to one unusual sight after another.
“Keyhole” is the kind of dreamlike movie to which you just have to surrender, allowing it to take you on its own journey to the subconscious. Imagine someone cross-breeding “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” with a low-budget ’30s noir thriller, and you begin to picture what Maddin is doing here.
It’s the kind of film where people have to deliver lines like, “The forget-me-nots are growing into her skull, and I should water them with my tears” with absolute seriousness, and Patric and Rossellini get the vibe of “Keyhole” just right. Whether or not their characters are mad, or even just manifestations of someone else’s imagination, the performers understand their place in the director’s overall vision.
Filmed in glorious black and white, with a storm constantly raging, “Keyhole” is a deliciously disturbing dreamscape for audiences who want to follow one of today’s most fascinating film artists on another wild ride.