Movie ReviewsRuss FischerComment

Guy Maddin

On my first trip to the Toronto Film Festival, I was thrilled to sit in the Elgin Theatre for the premiere of Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music In The World. He's entered a handful of short films into the fest in the years since, but no other features have been forthcoming. Brand Upon The Brain!, then, was among this year's must-see events. A silent film with live music, narration and foley effects, there was only one chance to take in the full spectacle.

Typical summarization does no justice to Maddin's construction, which synthesizes old-timey storytelling (heavily punctuated intertitles, massive over-emoting) with arthouse oddities and fever dream plotting. This presentation goes even farther than past Maddin dreamscapes through the use of a live foley trio who thunder and careen through a collection of noisemakers, as well as a live orchestra and (supposed) castrato. On it's own, Maddin's movie is almost a carnival sideshow, but with all the elements in place, Brand Upon The Brain! becomes a demented showstopper.

A fictional Guy Maddin returns to the island home of his childhood, where he recalls the most unusual events of bygone days. An inquisitive teen detective team appears and is quickly embroiled in a gender-based switcheroo, romantic entanglements with Maddin and his sister and a sort of low-rent horror sci-fi plot in which the essence of children is literally stolen to prop up the vitality of adults.

The aesthetic is less dirty and creaky than that of Saddest Music, but Maddin's perverse world view is better articulated; as bizarre as events eventually turn, the film is never alienating. It's immaterial to what extent the memories of our 'real' Guy Maddin have been parsed to create this mélange of fantasy and melodrama, because a real sense of longing pervades the film just the same.

The final effect is of a self-critical nostalgia trip similar to the fantasy and denial found in David Lynch's Lost Highway; as much as Maddin (real or fictional) might want to dwell in his past, his own fantasies twist into a denial of themselves. Unlike the fascinatingly grim world of Lynch, however, watching Maddin's psyche at war with itself is pure, gleeful entertainment. Brand Upon The Brain! is his most accomplished feature, contemplative and wildly entertaining.

(Maddin's cadre of musicians and effects artists will be appearing with the film at the New York Film Festival, and may tour the production through the States and Canada afterward.)

8.6 out of 10