Brand Upon the Brain!

branduponthebrain.jpg
Adam L. Weintraub/Vitagraph Films
Guy Maddin/United States-Canada 2007

Guy Maddin’s latest phantasmagoria is an avalanche of ersatz silent movie madness, all irised shots, black & white super-grainy Super 8, intertitles, smoky transitions and characters looming out of expressionist darkness, most of them barmy beyond words.

His protagonist, not for the first time, is Guy Maddin (this time Erik Steffen Maahs), returning to the lighthouse-cum-orphanage of his formative years to repaint it as per his mother’s last wish. As you’d expect on an island called Black Notch, Guy’s memory goes into Freudian meltdown, yielding up phantasms from childhood and a narrative from a Dadaist’s hangover. “The past!” booms stentorian narrator Isabella Rossellini while Guy whitewashes. “Deep structural cracks covered by a thin film of paint!” And she’s not wrong.

In convoluted flashback, we see young Guy’s dominating mother corralling his and his sister’s lives from atop the lighthouse, courtesy of various bits of steam-punk security measures and a workable clockwork wi-fi. Now and again mother sounds The Horn of Chastity, with results best described as mixed, while father appears to be extracting nectar from the brain stems of the orphans. Guy’s sexuality, already stirring, goes haywire with the arrival of another sibling pair, teen detectives The Lightbulb Kids (both played by Katherine Scharhon). The sister detective dresses up as her brother, inflaming both Guy’s sister and indeed Guy. (”Shoddy urges!” bark the intertitles. Right again.) Mother de-ages and re-ages once or twice, and father’s place in the household is briefly taken by a hamster and a metronome.

So it’s bonkers, then. As with most Maddin if your sense of humor is suitably aligned it can be a hoot, and if it’s not you’ll be chewing the upholstery, but by being so self-consciously arch Maddin might finally have overcooked the drollery. Eccentricity is one thing, but Brand is close to just being frivolous. It was first presented with live narrator, musicians and a castrato, and its truest milieu might indeed be on stage as part of a functioning art installation. Distilled down into a purely cinematic experience it’s intermittently intoxicating but it also crisps at the touch, fragile in a way his films usually aren’t.

He made a real find in Scharhon, though, who’s anything but brittle. Winsome, licentious and crafty all at the same time, she’s Louise Brooks by way of Shannyn Sossamon and the camera loves her to bits.

© 2007 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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