A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2012


2012, R, 94 mins.


Ulysses: Jason Patric / Hyacinth: Isabella Rossellini / Calypso: Louis Negin / Dr. Lemke: Udo Kier / Manners: David Wontner

Directed by Guy Maddin / Written by George Toles and Maddin.

Guy Maddin’s KEYHOLE is more of an audaciously esoteric collage of phantasmagorical and bizarre images than it is an involving and fully rendered narrative.  His film is like a twisted gateway into his fertile and oftentimes perverse imagination while, at the same time, relaying his fondness for classic genres of Hollywood’s yesteryear.  KEYHOLE is a fragmented dream that collides with reality, where the tangible coalesces with the intangible; to say that its underlining story is oftentimes confounding and lacking in an emotional buy-in for the audience is an understatement.  

Maddin, though, may not be interested in the standard accoutrements of linear and cohesive storytelling in KEYHOLE as he is with evoking an expressionistic sense mood.  There’s nothing much resembling a plot here, but the fascination that Maddin has with his opaque and startling imagery serves his film well.  Perhaps since KEYHOLE submerges itself within the weird fragmentation of the unconscious mind is fitting, seeing as its story is equally disjointed.  This hyperstylized approach may serve to infuriate lay filmgoers while ingratiating art house connoisseurs, and much of the film may be difficult for just about any filmgoer to easily assimilate.  Nonetheless, there is an odd and beguiling beauty to Maddin’s stunning looking film, which is jam packed with imagery of the disturbing and delicate.  I can’t say that it emotionally moved me, but as a work of pure and audacious artistic hubris, KEYHOLE is eerily unforgettable. 

The film may be like the love child of Bergman, Scorsese, and Lynch, but it’s also thoroughly steeped in vintage 1930’s crime noir.  We get a few introductory glimpses of an action montage that shows a cops and robbers chase, shootout, and getaway, followed by the crooks escaping to their rendezvous point, an old and creepy house that belongs to their leader, Ulysses (Jason Patric), whose name alone conjures up all sorts of layered thematic density.  The rugged, steely eyed, and intensely charismatic Ulysses holds the group together during their stressful times while, in the process, going on his own Homeric trek through the dark and dreary house itself. 

This is no ordinary dwelling.  The home is a living, breathing supernatural entity in its own right.  Ulysses finds himself going from room to room, greeted by obstacles such as ghostly aspirations and haunting visions from his past, where he eventually hopes to finally come to the bedroom that he once shared with his now-deceased wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who is now reclusively guarding the room with her naked father chained to the bed and her lover loitering in the background.  With a mysterious young woman (Brooke Palsson) at his side during his odyssey, Ulysses traverses through every locked door and ominous hallway of the haunted home and seems constantly beleaguered with nightmarish scenes of his past.  



There is not much else really to say about KEYHOLE’s story.  Again, plot is not the film’s true strong suit or calling card.  Maddin wants to use the screen to transport viewers to an ethereal plane of existence where stark reality and logic-defying dreams coexist.  KEYHOLE marks Maddin’s first foray into digital filmmaking, absconding away from using conventional celluloid to paint the film’s prominent and unforgettable black and white palette.  Using 35mm film would seem like a commonsense choice to appropriate the film noir grammar and syntax that he’s trying to emulate, but Maddin's choice to shoot the film digitally – which has a cold and calculating crispness and fidelity over the grain-infused texture of film stock – actually works to KEYHOLE’s favor.  The way he uses digital stock – composing multiple images in a single shot, using blurry and foggy framing devices, and utilizing jump cuts and frenetic movement  – heightens the film’s potent and mind-altering milieu.     

It’s deceptively easy to become lost in this film’s unsettling and carnival-like labyrinth of spooky imagery and forget that there are some fine actors at the helm.  Jason Patric in particular – as he has advanced in years and has matured - has a mug that just seems born for film noir.  He has a matinee-idol square jaw, an understated male bravado and cockiness, and an introverted and calm spoken menace about him that makes him such an unwavering and primal focal point in the film.   He carries a Robert Mitchum aura of rugged, brooding, and unflappable masculinity as he tries to deal with not only the “coppers” tracking him and his gang down, but with all of the nightmarish manifestations of his subconscious that come to him on his journey through the house.  Even after he survives a brief rebellion from his men and endures what should have been a fatal encounter with a home made electric chair – just one of the film’s many unholy and macabre sights – he shrugs it off with a wise guy nonchalance and dry wit. 

I liked Rossellini in the film as well, an actress whose appearance has obviously aged and withered with time, but whose bewitching presence on screen seems like a perfect fit for the enigmatic and wraithlike visage of Hyacinth.  Then there are other actors who seem like an inappropriate fit for material like this, like THE KIDS IN THE HALL’s Kevin Macdonald, who seems like more of a distraction in the film than anything else.  He’s never really credible as a part of Ulysses’ tough guy posse, not to mention that his past predilection to oddball and absurdist comedy gives KEYHOLE an unintentional layer of hilarity in scenes that most likely were not looking for it.   

It has been said that Maddin makes films showcasing his love for the art form, and iconoclastic works like MY WINNIPEG and now KEYHOLE imminently convey this.  His films are devilishly hard to classify because they are such a hodgepodge of influences and explosive stylistic impulses, which further makes critiquing them relative to other films quite problematic.  I have always appreciated daring films that flippantly mock status quos and indulge in their own uniquely formula-defying sensibilities.  KEYHOLE is an enthralling – if not frequently exasperating – cinematic experience.  It does not fit tidily into any discernable category, is formlessly roundabout in terms of a discernable plot, and seems at times to be an expressionistic labor of auteur love by Maddin that’s desperately searching for something to say and be about.  I was taken in with the whole grand and over sweeping peculiarity and persistence of artistic vision of KEYHOLE.  It’s a feast for the eyes, but not for the soul.

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