Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Keyhole (2011)

by on March 13, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue March 20 at 8:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Dir. Guy Maddin in-person

Last month’s invauable “Film Comment Selects” series returns with one last delicacy, the latest feature from Alt Screen fave Guy Maddin. Maddin’s first foray into digital, which premiered last year at TIFF and recently screened at SXSW, has been labeled “stubbornly cryptic” by detractors but was included in FC Editor Gavin Smith’s Top 10 of 2011. Maddin will be there, with his usual perceptiveness and unique articulations, to guide us through his dream logic.

Smith in Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2011):

Toronto’s other world-premiere triumph came from another artist who finds his aesthetic impetus in film history’s distant past, although his formally promiscuous and madcap approach couldn’t be more different. I’m talking, of course, about the inimitable Canadian National Treasure known as Guy Maddin, who unveiled Keyhole, by far his most ambitious film to date. Coming on like a Forties gangster film, and then turning progressively more deranged and hallucinatory as it unfolds, Keyhole might be described as a hardboiled trance film. Pursued by cops, a crew of mobsters hole up in a haunted house. Although mob boss Ulysses Pick (Jason Patrie) reveals that the house is his former family home, in reality it suggests nothing so much as the interior of his fraught psyche-and the spooks that haunt it are the refracted memories, unfinished business, and unexorcised demons. Ulysses quests deep into this labyrinthine space, accompanied by a drowned, blind girl returned to life and a bound and gagged hostage, soon revealed to be his son-did I forget to mention that Keyhole is also a free adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey in the form of a family psychodrama? (Maddin professes never to have read Homer.) The dramatis personae also include Ulysses’s (dead) wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), Hyacinth’s naked and chained father (Louis Negin), and a doctor (Udo Kier) making a house call.
A heady cocktail of high-contrast blackand-white photography, endlessly shifting light, proliferating superimpositions, staccato edit clusters, and a remarkable score by Jason Staczek, the film is brooding, febrile, and overpoweringly oneiric in tone. Those who see Maddin as a purveyor of delirious camp will be in for a surprise-this time he isn’t necessarily looking for laughs. The pastiche of Forties Hollywood dialogue and performance is played straight, and the casting of Patrie, improbable as it sounds, is a masterstroke: he combines the air and looks of a midlevel movie actor of yesteryear with a completely contemporary interiority. At times as creepy as The Shining, this adventure in manifesting consciousness on screen, complete with twist ending, takes Maddin and his perennial screenwriting collaborator George Toles up to a whole new level of ambition, and sets them down somewhere on the far side of David Lynch territory.


Jason Anderson for The Grid:

Besides being the Winnipeg director’s self-proclaimed “ghosts-and-gangsters movie,” Keyhole is also one of cinema’s weirdest and funniest takes on Homer’s Odyssey. (There’s plenty of Joyce in the mix, too, and a little Abbott and Costello.) Jason Patric is terrific in the role of Ulysses, a gangland boss on a quest to revisit his past and reconstitute the family he had with wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), one of many characters who may actually be deceased. Like so many of Maddin’s movies, Keyhole plays by its own rules and its own (dream) logic. But rarely has the director’s brand of surrealism been quite so bewitching, funny or erotically charged.


Michał Oleszczyk for Fandor:

Haunted in every sense and scene (not least by the ghost of the late George Kuchar), Maddin’s latest makeshift folly is perhaps best described as a deranged remake of William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours. All hopes for clarity and coherence are squashed early on, when – after a spectacular noir shoot-out – the living mingle with the dead and George Toles’ rich and strange dialogue kicks in. Keyhole, which was developed from an earlier Maddin short is nevertheless a triumph, albeit an almost autistic one. It’s a movie speaking in a non-extant language: one impossible to learn, but difficult to resist.


James Rocchi for The Playlist:

“Keyhole” works as pure atmospherics; a hallway full of genitalia and limbs sprouting from the wall (“This penis is dusty,” a character notes matter-of-factly) is a R-rated riff on Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” while the gangland material is straight out of a ’40s Warner Bros. gangster pic — if ’40s gangster pics had rough inspiration from Homer’s “Odyssey” while taking place in a haunted house right out of a LSD-soaked episode of “Scooby Doo.”
Maddin is in love with the techniques and tones of classic Hollywood — not merely the epic but also the everyday, not just the masterful but also the merely moneymaking — and his usual re-use of classic film technique is not just the centerpiece of the film but, perhaps the point of the film. Lightning flashes, thunder crashes, faces appear on billowing curtains, a man is put to death with an electric chair whose headpiece is a colander.
The press notes for “Keyhole” describe it as Maddin’s first attempt at “pure narrative filmmaking,” a joke that, in itself, is funnier than anything in the script.


Matt Cahill hosts a post-production diary here.

John Semley has words for all these doubters, for Cinemascope:

Maddin finds new footing here, and his best leading man since Careful‘s Kyle McCulloch in Jason Patric, whose classic, rock-jawed good looks and tendency to play the silliness and surrealism totally straight, as if he’s just happy for the job, make Keyhole feel like considerably more than another exercise in Maddinalia.
In a hazy credits montage, bullets wing, ding and ricochet as a group of gangsters shoot their way past police to hole up in the haunted family home of their boss, Ulysses (Patric), who arrives shortly thereafter with a soaking wet medium, Denny (Brooke Palsson). In a quest befitting his name, Ulysses pokes through his old house with Denny in an attempt to locate what is either his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini, who’s given surprisingly little to do), or her ghost. His slog is beset on one side by the gangsters in the drawing room conspiring against him (including Kevin McDonald, who’s quickly dashed when he attempts to mount one of the house’s spirits), and on the other by Hyacinth’s buck-naked father (Louis Negin, again assuming the role of perverse primal father a la Maddin’s shorts Sissy Boy Slap Party II and Glorious), who seems to be manipulating the space of the house itself to stymie Ulysses’ journey.
Requisite winks to Homer abound, of course—the “cyclops” here is a rubbery cock poking through a gilded glory hole, another nod to Glorious—but all the nostalgic po-mo business works in service of Maddin’s accomplished compression of time and space, and of time into space, with Ulysses’ conversations and quarrels with spirits from times past recalling the temporally-contracted spaces of Tony Scott’s Deja Vu. Maddin’s first long-form “talkie” shot digitally, Keyhole may lack the cruddy tactile quality of his previous features, but the almost startling crispness of the images makes this the first Maddin film about memory that’s not moonlighting as a reminiscence for the cinema itself.



TIFF programmer Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo:

Idiosyncratic, cheeky and uncategorizable, the films of Guy Maddin are testaments to the singular vision of a great contemporary cinema artist. A surreal indoor odyssey fol­lowing one man’s struggle to reach his wife, Keyhole bewilders and captivates. It may be Maddin’s boldest film yet.

Maddin is known for creating new worlds governed by their own logic and rules, and the bizarre exists at every turn in Keyhole’s maze. Ulysses is hindered by various obsta­cles, including the treachery of his own gang. His pursuit is also intercut by the rumina­tions of a phantom narrator: Hyacinth’s naked, chained father, the self-declared “enemy.” His odyssey eventually becomes an emotional tour, as the strange nooks and crannies of the house reveal more about the mysterious Pick family.

As unique as the film is, the subjects it explores are classic: loyalty and betrayal, male rivalry, family secrets and romantic longing. These are laced, of course, with a memorable dose of Maddinesque humili­ation. Co-written by his long-time writing partner George Toles and vividly shot in digital (a departure for Maddin), Keyhole is a hypnotic, dreamlike journey into memory that takes place in an incredible haunted house. Maddin has become one of Canada’s most internationally respected filmmakers, and his latest work affirms his commitment to cinema of brazen originality



Patrick Gamble for Cine Vue:

Maddin’s films always feel like they’re trapped within a timeless vortex, where common sense in unable to penetrate his unique world. However, whilst the constraints of the real world are prohibited, so to it seems are the self imposed limits Maddin set himself on previous films. Whilst always submerged in abstract narrative devices, there always remained a spine to these stories, yet with Keyhole the plot is far more elusive, relying rather too heavily on the audience to draw comparisons with Homer’s The Odyssey to truly immerse themselves in this surreal world of ghosts and the supernatural.
Like some kind of noirish nightmare taking place in the repressed memories of It’s central protagonist, Keyhole is an incredibly haunting journey that looks set to divide audiences. Much like David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) there will be many fully prepared to lose themselves in Maddin’s ludicrously over indulgent nightmare, however everyone else will struggle to find little more than an incoherent mess of a film. Regardless of where you find yourself, there’s little doubt that Keyhole will firmly lodge itself in the forefront of your mind.



Blake Willians for Ioncinema:

Tying in with the autobiographical nature of much of Maddin’s work, Keyhole is essentially about one man’s journey to rectify is past demons with his family. Vaguely alluding to Rossellini’s role in Blue Velvet, the film’s first lines are a repetition of the phrase “remember your disease” (playing off of her Lynch line ‘he put his disease in me’), or in other words, ‘deal with your familial baggage’. The correlation of illness and blood relations is hardly inappropriate, especially considering the presence of Hyacinth’s father, who could more be described as a swollen mole. Those familiar with Homer’s Odyssey will have a ball connecting characters and things with their memories of the long-winded story, especially when a penis in a glory hole stands in as a wink to the Cyclops.

Maddin’s love of German expressionism is in full force in the rapid editing and close-ups, but the graininess has taken a back seat. Coming off of his quite uncharacteristic, Jack Smith-esque short The Little White Cloud That Cried, if was a tad disheartening to see him abandon colour, as he’d drawn up a distinct palette that was refreshingly vibrant. Colour makes a momentary appearance in an INLAND EMPIRE-inspired push into another universe by penetrating a rococo fabric, but that’s the extent of it. Epitomizing a transitional film, Keyhole works best as a display of experiments that Maddin has been toying with, and might utilize to a more meaningful application in the future, squarely under the guise of a fully formed idea. It works as a stream of consciousness, but is forgotten for its lack of lingering substance.



Jessica Kiang talks to Maddin for The Playlist:

It started to nebulize into something un-coalesced, let’s put it that way. That’s more accurate. You know I’ve been lamenting for years — long before I made a clarity step backward from “My Winnipeg” and even “Brand Upon the Brain!” to this — I’ve been lamenting, ever since movies were invented the earliest Variety reviewers would say “realistic,” as if naturalism was absolute ideal. It’s certainly what makes Lumière’s films exquisite. But it’s certainly not an absolute thing. I finally put my finger on it, because I’ve been trying to make films that operate on the logic the way music does rather then narrative sense, rather then a mathematical formula, but I have a degree in Economics and Mathematics, and as soon as I graduated I threw my degree in the garbage and rotated hemispheres.
I wish I could even say this of myself, I wish movie viewers could watch movies the way we all listen to music. Now a song, a pop song that you either love or hate, or come around on, is only three or four minutes long and a movie is longer. A movie uses up time you can never get back. But if you don’t understand a pop song, you don’t care, you just love it. It just goes straight to your heart. The kind of perceptions that a movie can bombard you with could work the same way if we just learn to watch that way. I was telling my my four year old granddaughter [about] one of my script ideas for a short film and I said, “It opens up, it’s a dark room but there’s a little bit of light and there’s a dead man lying on the floor and he’s got a mustache and the camera moves in closer and closer to the mustache and the mustache has a dream and you see into the mustache’s dream, you see the man alive, he was alive back then before he died. And the mustache is about to tell the same story…” And I said, “Is that confusing?” She said “No.” And I realized that later when she’s older, she probably won’t accept it as much after she’s been trained by crystal-clear narratives that have been through screenwriting processors and things like that that.

Obviously aesthetically your films very much refer to classic movies.
Yeah, The Bowery Boys [characters in 48 of Monogram Pictures features, from 1946’s “Live Wires” to 1958’s “In The Money,” making it the longest film series ever], for instance, here.
But this one seemed to me to start out from that place, but go somewhere else.
That’s exactly what I felt, much to my horror that the movie needed to do. Because I really set out to make something that might build on the audience goodwill I got from “My Winnipeg.” And I thought, “Well, I’ll make a genre film. I’ll make a film about reminisence, recollection, the sadness we can all feel, a sweet sadness, as sweet as a Billie Holiday song, how it’s great to feel sad in a safe way. But it’s an honest way and it doesn’t make you suicidal, for very long anyway, a fantasy suicide that we can all share for a while and then come out of it feeling stronger. You know it can still be a legitimate art, a beautiful art. So I set out to make something like that and something that would be understandable but it ended up being important to me the more I thought about the space, the house, that I started to wonder what ghosts were to me, ghosts were just memories. I don’t believe in ghosts but when I’m writing and I hold a camera in my hands I believe in them. I just tend to think of them as memories. When you’re in a house that’s really dear to you, like I chose to make the house in this movie like my childhood home. I just thought it was important that these memories hang in the air as voices and as characters and that they all had to start talking to each other at one point and that they would all just start clamoring.


The Playlist interview continues:

I found the film much easier to comprehend when I thought of it as a story of a house, as opposed to trying to follow the characters.
I think that’s probably what I should say in every intro to the movie. This is just the biography of the house. And that the ghosts and things are just characters that are just guests and the house will outlive us. I have these recurring dreams — these are the things that made me want to make the movie — where I’m just walking through my house and there’s no one in it. It always feels like there’s someone in the next room, a sadness that needs to be taken care of, maybe someone I didn’t visit enough at the hospital before she died, or something like that. They’re very haunting, and the house really haunts me, until I realized that we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, I realized that these dreams, if I chose to look at them as dreams of the future… the house isn’t haunting me, I’m haunting the house. I literally feel like I’m walking up and down the corridors of the house entering different rooms, and just feeling things but I’m unable to see people that are still alive. I’m just dreaming of my own death. So it kind of spooked me that way when I started to see it that way. So it’s a story of a house, but it’s a house I’m haunting. That may be the glibbest way of putting it, and it’s the only time I’ve done it. So you got it first.

A video interview with Maddin from The New York Times.
Kelly Stewart for Fangoria:

Keyhole plays out like mystery that needs to be solved but like most dreams; once you wake up they don’t make any sense anymore. So you may like what you see through this keyhole but you likely won’t understand it…but then again, what haunted houses ever really do make sense?


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