Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Watching a Guy Maddin film is hard work. But it’s rewarding work. As you peel away each layer of the film, you are rewarded with a sweeter layer deeper within the film. “Brand Upon The Brain!” is the middle of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy” – Cowards Bend The Knee and My Winnipeg being the bookends.
With each film, Maddin creates a unique atmosphere. I’ve always felt like his films are discoveries. They weren’t really made (and certainly not in current times) but just found. This film is reminiscent of early Russian and German silent films of the Twenties. At least in its style – the B&W photography, the cue cards, the foley, and the narration. But the thematic elements of the plot are purely modern. Guy’s blending of older styles with unique, disturbing stories is what so often draws comparison to the early films of David Lynch – particularly The Grandmother, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
The plot is almost just another part of the atmosphere of the film. It is simple enough that it probably couldn’t exist on its own as a more mainstream film. But when interwoven with such a challenging film style, there becomes layer after layer of secrets to unlock. The story is told in twelve chapters. The older Guy Maddin is called home to his island by his dying mother to repaint the lighthouse. The lighthouse was his childhood home and it served as an orphanage run by his overbearing mother and mad scientist/inventor father. What a beautiful set up in that first chapter. The Super-8, grainy black-and-white shots of the lighthouse and the barren island tell more about the story than twenty minutes of exposition ever could. Painting over the childhood home to cover up the cracks, the lone beacon on the island that served to always watch over Guy wherever he went, and growing up among orphans even though his parents were still alive. It’s powerful and the character does not speak a word.
The painting brings back powerful memories that lead us to the adventures of young Guy Maddin. Like any memory, as a viewer we never know how trustworthy our guide is and we can always forgive the exaggerated scenes as part of the older man’s embellished storytelling. Young Guy spends his days with his sister (known only as Sis), slightly older. Their mother watches their every move from the top of the lighthouse, the brilliant white light cutting across the darkness of the island, her voice screeching, unrecognizable except for the subtitle of the title card. Their father toils away in the basement inventing mysterious objects. I’m reminded of a combination of Thomas Dolby in “She Blinded Me With Science” and Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” with Donald Sutherland.
Teen detectives, Wendy and Chance Hale, arrive on the island for an investigation when adoptive parents discover holes in the back of their children’s heads. The detectives, known as “The Lightbulb Kids” have a very literary introduction making them seem even less real. Almost like a figment of Guy’s imagination. From here out, we are introduced to some very rich and slightly uncomfortable sexual subtexts. Guy develops his first crush on Wendy (as she’s the first to visit the island). In the next chapter, Wendy disguises herself as her brother Chance to continue her investigation. As Chance, Guy has a “boy crush” on him but still misses Wendy. Sis falls in love with Chance who falls in love back but is afraid to show that she’s really Wendy.
All this time, the connections are getting tighter. Wendy and Chance are the same person. And both children have unnaturally close relationships with their opposite sex parent. Guy is often drawn into bed with his mother and Sis is summoned alone to her father’s laboratory. Father’s biggest experiment is to make his wife younger. This turns the notches up even more with a mother becoming closer in age to her children and further from her husband.
The film’s final few chapters delve into the deep, dark secrets of the family. They include vampirism, organ harvesting, lesbianism, and loads of repression. Each revelation only hints at a greater storyline. It’s haunting to watch the images and the words on the screen. But they only tell a portion of the story. The narration (by Isabella Rossellini) doesn’t just mimic the words on the cards, it tells the story on another level. Interjecting phrases or repeating a key line. And the score (Jason Staczek) keeps the story marching forward – not letting the viewer dwell on any single frame.
I found the film challenging in a good way. I’ve been disappointed with some of Maddin’s previous films for their style-over-substance issues. But here, the story fits the style. It is hardly contained by the style and threatens to burst out at every seam. But Maddin keeps it under control – each layer hinting at something just beyond our view or under the surface. This world is fully formed and the director is letting us see just enough. That’s exactly how a film that’s ultimately about secrets and repression should be.
Like most Criterion Collection products, the extras on the DVD are superb. This film was performed live in its original run with live orchestra, foley, singer, and narrator. Some of those other narrators are available as bonus tracks. I highly recommend the Crispin Glover version as an interesting comparison to the Rossellini track. The documentary, “97 Percent True” is a 50-minute piece that needs to be digested almost as closely as the film. There are two short films and a deleted scene also included.
If you enter Guy Maddin’s world, embrace it. This fairy tale film will bear out many viewings to decipher. But the construction of the film will make that very pleasurable indeed.