Berlinale Dispatch #4: Guy Maddin on Keyhole—and what comes next

FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
At the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, the cult Canadian director talks film noir, collage parties, and séances with Isabella Rossellini.

Guy Maddin is a master of strange beauty and surreal tales. His latest feature, Keyhole, is no exception. His next project, filming a series of séances held live in public places, may turn out to be stranger still.

Keyhole is a return to dramatic fiction after Maddin’s foray into documentary with My Winnipeg (2007). It’s less accessible than the latter and is hard to follow towards the end. As a long-time Maddin fan, it felt a little like coming home.

The plot: smooth-talking gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) returns home after a long absence. He has two teenagers in tow: a drowned girl and a bound-and-gagged hostage, who he fails to recognise as his own son. Leaving his gang downstairs, Ulysses must travel through the haunted house to the upstairs bedroom where his ailing, grieving wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) waits.

The film seems more film noir, less melodrama than Brand Upon the Brain!, say, or The Saddest Music in the World, which gives it a pleasingly rough edge.

The director isn’t convinced. “I paid a pretty flaccid tribute to film noir with this movie,” he says in a roundtable interview in Berlin. “I shot it black and white and I have some shadows and I have some guys with guns.”

In one striking scene, early on, Ulysses orders his men to throw their guns down a chute into a furnace. “I realised I didn’t want to keep track of all that tedious stuff, of who’s got a gun and who’s going to double cross who,” Maddin explains. “So I just got rid of them.”

The 1930s-era gangsters in the film owe more to Homer’s Odyssey. Maddin interprets the Odyssey as a deadbeat dad story about a father who’s been gone for years, possibly with another woman. “His son is either dreaming his father has returned or he’s actually returning, he’s not sure. But he knows his father is some sort of alpha male. In the original, he’s a great soldier. In this one, I thought, ah, I’ll just make him a gangster.”

Keyhole is not just the story of Ulysses and his family but also—more so—that of the house. Maddin has recurring dreams about his childhood home, walking up and down and feeling an “exquisite sadness” for times past. “I feel like I’m in a haunted house and then I realise I’m the one that’s haunting the house,” he says.

“I told myself when I started making the movie that it might be glibly described as the biography of a house. But maybe it’s more the biography of me haunting the house. I don’t know. I’m not sure what it is.”

You could say his next project is hard to classify. Maddin will shoot live, in colour, a series of séances held in Paris, New York, São Paulo and Winnipeg.

“We’re going to try to make contact each day, one film per day for a hundred days this year, with the spirit of a lost film,” he explains. The film will be invited to compel Maddin and his actors to act out its long-forgotten plot, with the results live streamed on the Internet then edited together.

He’s got some serious talent lined up for it, including Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, André Wilms (Le Havre), Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier and long-time muse and partner in crime Isabella Rossellini (see here for the pair’s lengthy two-way interview for BOMB magazine.)

“I paid a pretty flaccid tribute to film noir with this movie. I shot it black and white and I have some shadows and I have some guys with guns.”

Maddin’s projects don’t make sense to everyone, a fact he seems to both lament and dismiss. “Isn’t it odd the way we’ll allow music into our hearts without needing to understand it? That we’ll hear a pop song and just decide we like it, in spite of ourselves, without even knowing why?” he asks. “You don’t go ‘I don’t understand it, I don’t get it, what’s with this musician. He’s a pretentious jerk’.”

He likes films to have at least a psychological logic to them. “My favourite movies have things that take me right inside, back inside myself, or inside a person. I understand their logic but it’s pointed out in odd ways.”

The first film he fell in love with as a young adult was Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or. “They’re basically using melodrama but an extremely high octane version of melodrama. And melodrama for me is always the truth uninhibited.”

For example, in our waking lives, we’re unable to hit the people we hate or steal and cry when we feel like it. In dreams—and good melodrama—those by-day repressed feelings are given free rein. “They’re not exaggerated. In good melodrama, they’re uninhibited. But it’s kept true.”

Occasionally he likes films with not much more than a visual logic to them. Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White is one that comes to mind. “I could just endlessly watch that without feeling like I understand anybody much. But I don’t care, because it’s just beautiful. That’s more musical still.”

Keyhole, too, has an almost choreographed beauty to it. To help develop the film’s intricate mise-en-scène, Maddin held collage parties with friends in six different cities. Some lasted for hours, some for several days.

“I would just say something like ‘electric chair’ and then open the bourbon and bring a stack of porn magazines and old melodrama magazines,” he explains. “I got a lot of images that were really beautiful and they just built up.”

I ask Maddin who he makes his films for. “The last couple of films I made, Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg, ended up having live elements,” he says. “It felt great because I could make the film as a filmmaker, which always implies making it personally, but then be a showman when I showed it. That was a really valuable lesson because I started to make films more and more for people.”

But halfway through Keyhole’s production, he realised—“to my horror”—that this wasn’t a film that would be “gobbled up by the masses.”

“I realised what I’d been doing all along is making films like an author who writes novels, who’s trying to make literature,” he concludes. “I try to communicate my thoughts, my feelings, my take on what might be human truths… I try to make people feel them, enjoy them, but I make it on my terms.”

At the end, he’s just happy if he’s made the film he hoped to. “And then I’m way happier if more people like it. If a lot of people like it, I’m happier still.”

Nina Fowler’s dispatches for The Lumière Reader will continue throughout the Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from February 9-19.