Review: Keyhole (2011)

Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin’s most recent film Keyhole (2012) is, like all of Maddin’s films (including My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World, and Dracula: Pages from the Virgin’s Diary), idiosyncratic and strangely haunting. However, Keyhole seems to push into a whole new level of opacity, which makes it a frustrating film on a certain level. However, days after viewing it, I find fleeting images and feelings from the film sticking with me. The film seems to offer a direct line to Maddin’s cinematic unconscious, where the desire to attribute meaning dissolves in the experience of the thing.

The invocation of the unconscious is wholly appropriate in describing this film, which calls out for a Freudian analysis of the fractured family at its centre and the traumas and emotions left on the house they inhabit. Loosely speaking, Keyhole tells the story of Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric), a gangster holed up in his eerily large family home on a stormy night. Ulysses must make his way through the house, confronting the literal ghosts of the past in order to reconcile with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) who keeps her father, Calypso (Louis Negin) chained to her bed.

The screen becomes a cinematic palimpsest here as Maddin leaves traces of film noir, melodrama, and horror all over this tale befitting Greek myth. The Ulysses of this film is also on a quest, but one that takes him literally inward, into a domestic space that has been torn apart by family alienation. Ulysses drags with him a mysterious prisoner, who ends up being his son, Manners (David Wontner) and a beautiful drowned girl named Denny (Brooke Palsson) who seems able to navigate the confused space of the house.

Shot in black and white and edited to a fever pitch, Maddin’s film is both disorienting and disturbing. The black and white digital cinematography and art direction remind me that despite the accolades heaped The Artist this past year at the Oscars, Maddin has been experimenting with monochrome and varying degrees of silent film for over two decades. While Keyhole is far from silent – in fact its sound design and score add to its nightmarish qualities – Maddin nonetheless plays with conventions of silent cinema quite well. One could imagine many of the film’s key images retaining their power without dialogue or sound effects.

Scraping the palimpsest that is Keyhole reveals more elements that Maddin employs, not pretentiously, as such subject matter could indeed elicit, but playfully. One of the strangely disconcerting elements of the film is its juvenile and perverse sense of humour; at one point characters must pass through a secret passage whose walls are lined, not with arms as in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, but other, more base, appendages. Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald plays one of Ulysses’ gang and Udo Kier shows up as a strangely nonplussed doctor. Absurdly, Ulysses at one point issues an order to his gang that anyone who has been killed should face the wall, and they dutifully comply.

Yet, behind the experimental cinematography and art direction, and the perverse humour, is a story of pain and a striving for reconciliation. While those who are interested in the film should be aware that it offers little narrative closure, and many threads are left dangling, it nonetheless ends on a poignant note, leaving the viewer to contemplate the ghosts that can come to inhabit a family’s home.

Keyhole (2011)

Keyhole premiered at TIFF 2011 last September, but is only now getting a regular theatrical distribution at art houses in North America.

Directed by Guy Maddin; screenplay by Guy Maddin and George Toles; starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Louis Negin, Kevin McDonald.

7 out of 10