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DVD Review: The Quintessential Guy Maddin!

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a cinematic auteur working today with a more idiosyncratic vision than Guy Maddin. The Canadian director has made his trade creating surreal fantasy worlds steeped in the film grammar of a bygone age, ensuring that every Maddin film is anything but a boring experience. Even when his bold stylistic experiments don’t always coalesce, Maddin by and large crafts riveting works of weirdness, touched with a sense of madness and absurdity. Whether he’s quoting German expressionism or Soviet montage, Maddin comes up with something all his own.

Zeitgeist’s new four-disc set, billed as The Quintessential Guy Maddin!, collects five of his most prominent feature length works along with a number of short films. All of the discs included here exist as previous standalone releases from the company, but for those who don’t own any of them, this set is a fantastic introduction.

Disc one: Careful (1992)
Careful might just be Maddin’s masterpiece, and this cockeyed tale of repression in a tiny mountain village is as funny as it is frightening. Past accidents have caused the residents of the village to be wary, and everyone speaks in a whisper to avoid causing another devastating avalanche. But there’s turmoil beneath the surface, with incestuous desires threatening to boil over, and boy, do they ever. Maddin takes a butler-in-training’s lust for his mother and whips it into a recipe for droll comedy and striking imagery, aided by artificial film strip coloring and a creaky visual style that represents some of the best and worst of the silent era.

This disc is the remastered version that Zeitgeist released in 2009. It includes a commentary by Maddin and screenwriter George Toles, an hour-long documentary on Maddin’s career narrated by Tom Waits and Maddin’s 1995 short Odilon Redon.

Disc two: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and Archangel (1990)
Maddin’s second feature, Archangel, presages some of the visual strategies of Careful, and even if it isn’t as fully realized of a film, its silent film-style tale of a town unaware of the end of World War I and the mistaken identities that ensue within feels like a wonderful forgotten dispatch from another era.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs takes a little more patience to make your way through. It’s more visually polished than his previous work, and the garish color palette looks like three-strip Technicolor pushed to lurid heights, with magentas and yellows substituting for deep reds and blues. It’s the (intentionally) overly flowery dialogue and glacial pace that makes this bizarre tale of obsession less engaging than other Maddin films, but there’s no denying it’s a unique beast.

Commentary tracks featuring Maddin and others are included for both films, along with storyboards and production photos, and Maddin’s remarkable 2000 short The Heart of the World.

Disc three: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003)
An extraordinary fusion of silent expressionism, dance film and classic horror, Dracula is a singular work, hewing fairly closely to the Bram Stoker novel while carving out its own territory within the vast world of Dracula interpretations. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs the classic tale, with Maddin emphasizing further the critiques of xenophobia and Victorian repression that Stoker’s novel featured. The film is riveting and gorgeous, and for those turned off by Maddin’s quirks, Dracula exists as the least jokey and irony-laden film of the set. (Not that Maddin’s penchant for the absurd is completely missing, as a quick scene condenses a large portion of the novel’s action into just a few seconds of outrageousness.)

Included on the disc are a Maddin commentary track, a featurette on the design, interviews and a making-of.

Disc four: Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)
Cowards Bend the Knee may clock in at just over an hour, but it easily packs in the most weirdness of any film included here — and probably a majority of films out there. Briefly, the film concerns a hockey player named Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, not the director) who takes his girlfriend to get an abortion in a beauty parlor and leaves her midway for the beauty parlor owner’s daughter. She then insists that before he can touch her, his hands must be replaced with those of her dead father’s, which she has kept preserved in a jar. That scratches the surface, I guess. Black-and-white and silent like Dracula, the film is broken down into 10 roughly equal segments, and was designed to be an installation at an art gallery, but it’s not so abstract as to lose the compelling nature of the narrative, which is infused with black wit to spare.

The disc includes a Maddin commentary, blueprints for four short films, vintage photos that inspired some of the film and a featurette on the film’s companion piece, Brand Upon the Brain!, which is available in a very nice DVD release from Criterion.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.