BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!NR
Like no other auteur currently working in cinema--and it's hard to think of another director who so obviously requires the "auteur" imprimatur--Guy Maddin presents a highly unique vision that combines a studied appreciation of film history with a die-hard belief in the limitless expansiveness of the form; he's a classical Dadaist, if such a term is even appropriate. Maddin's newest, Brand Upon the Brain!, is an ode to the gloried pulp traditions of the past that's been crafted with a white-hot intensity of vision, a carnival funhouse somehow invested with a powerful emotionality.
Brand Upon the Brain! is subtitled and structured as "A Remembrance in 12 Chapters," giving a Proustian gloss to what is at base a hodgepodge of genre influences used to gussy up a framework of Maddin's autobiographical obsessions. Shot in the manner of a silent film--grainy and flickering black-and-white stock, intertitles, iris shots, and jumpily overwrought acting--it opens on a man, described by the narrator as "Guy Maddin, house painter," who is returning on a small rowboat to the isolated island of his childhood. Once there on Black Notch Island, Guy's memories spiral back to the past, when as a young boy (played by Sullivan Brown) he was always under the thumb of his demented mother (Gretchen Krich), who watches with a telescope night and day from the top of their lighthouse, which also doubles as an orphanage. Anytime anything interesting is about to happen, Guy and his sister, Sis (Maya Lawson), are interrupted by their mother, who calls them home on a fantastical, pre-walkie-talkie communicator called an aerophone. All the while, their mad-scientist father labors away in his Frankenstein-style laboratory.
The strange happenings on Black Notch Island are many, starting with a black mass being held by a group of orphans, led by one Savage Tom, continuing with the arrival of a famous pair of child detectives known as the Lightbulb Kids (who arouse all sorts of hormonal desires among the siblings, which mother moves to suppress), and culminating in a demented psychosexual battle for control between the children and their parents. All the while, the intertitles and occasional narration predict, announce and comment on the action with a surfeit of purple prose that both exaggerates the silliness of much of what we're witnessing but also infuses it with a certain pulp grandeur, with exclamation marks aplenty and ejaculations like "Oh the past! The past!"
The cumulative effect of Maddin's ransacking of old filmic styles (German Expressionism plays a large role here) along with a soul-baring emptying out of the subconscious, with screeching Freudian overtones, is something akin to a cinematic sugar rush. It's absolute insanity, what Maddin is presenting here, but nonetheless addictive, as the creepy subtexts and subplots pile up with Lynchian abandon (lesbianism! incest! patricide!) on this isolated island with its rocky beaches, lapping waves, dark secrets and eternally watching mother in the lighthouse.
Brand Upon the Brain! is the sort of film very much meant to be seen live, in one of the grand theatrical presentations the distributors have planned for a limited number of markets where there will be live accompaniment by an orchestra, a Foley team, and a "celebrity" narrator. The rest of the world will have to be content with Jason Staczek's richly gothic score, and Isabella Rossellini's loony and wildly emotive recorded narration. The net effect may be something less than Maddin and his fantastically talented team would have intended, as it's possible they may have dug themselves too far into this hermetically sealed fantasy world for many viewers to really connect with it. But one thing is for sure--those who see Brand Upon the Brain! are in some way mentally branded afterward, having witnessed a film the likes of which they will never come across again. At least, not until the next Guy Maddin film.