Keyhole – Guy Maddin dreams of Ulysses (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

The official site for Guy Maddin’s Keyhole has this to say about the film:

After a long absence, gangster and father Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) arrives home to a house haunted with memories, towing the body of a teenaged girl and a bound and gagged young man. His gang waits inside his house, having shot their way past police. There is friction in the ranks. Ulysses, however, is focused on one thing: journeying through the house, room by room, and reaching his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) in her bedroom upstairs. The equilibrium of the house has been disturbed and his odyssey eventually becomes an emotional tour, as the ghostly nooks and crannies of the house reveal more about the mysterious Pick family. — (C) Official Site

In Homers version of the story of Ulysses (The Iliad) it is his arrogance or hubris that is the blockage that prevents Ulysses from being able to come home. Ulysses has successfully defeated the Trojans and penetrated the great walls of Troy. However, when he cries out his boast that no one can harm him, it is the Cyclops and his father Poseidon who cause Ulysses to wander for ten years before he is able to get home. When he does get there, he has to fight unwelcome suitors in order to be able to reclaim his wife.

Guy Maddin has given us a twisted version of this tale. Ulysses is searching for his wife in his house filled with memories. He has been gone for a long time and had to fight his way inside with an army of bandits that he leads. He is a violent disagreeable man and it is his connection with his son, his sons lover (a drowned woman who may or may not actually be dead) and the spectre of his wife that he mellows and becomes a more agreeable man. Only once he has embarked on this transformation does he come face to face with his wife.

This is a very beautiful film, and a very strange one. I enjoyed it a lot despite the feeling I had playing around the edges that Guy Maddin might like to do things just to shock rather than enhance the films aesthetic. Every now and then I had the faintest feeling he was just trying to show off.  I might be wrong about that, and frankly the film was good enough that I didn’t care about it in the end. Another slight problem I had was with the distinct Lynch influence. I can’t help thinking Maddin can come up with his own surreal concepts and doesn’t need to cow-tow to Lynch.  But as with my other minor complaint, this didn’t distract me from a wonderful film.

Louis Negin is wonderfully creepy in this film as the father of Hyacinth (Calypso). Isabella Rossellini, the chic poster girl for the weird, is fantastic as well – but when isn’t she? Everyone takes on a kind of hyper realised acting style within the film so that you can’t quite tell what is dream or what is reality.  In terms of style, the film bares some resemblance to that other famous Ulysses – Joyce’s version. The house wandering evokes stream of consciousness.  Sometimes its Ulysses, sometimes its Hyacinth’s, sometimes it might be someone elses. This circular meandering is an ever-present reminder of the eternal wandering that is the punishment for hubris. Ulysses wandering is sometimes driven by his agenda, sometimes by his memories, sometimes by his circumstances. No matter what Ulysses feels or thinks of his wandering, it is endless.  And it is a punishment.

There are some funny moments. Corpses are asked to stand and face the wall, to distinguish them from the living who face out from the wall. (I rather liked that it was difficult to tell who was dead and who was alive. A little like life that.)  A man warned not to touch the ghosts because they are “touchy” reaches out to have sex with an attractive ghost, is killed for his attempt, and then gets to spend eternity in the endless joy of coitus with her.  Police surround the house, warn of an impeding strike, never strike and eventually leave. These odd ball funny moments come out of the blue and work mostly to lift the dark circuitry of the rest of the film, but they also provide a slanted perspective that often adds to the surreal nature of the film. Where comedy usually implies not taking yourself too seriously, there is nothing about this film that doesn’t take itself seriously.

If you’re looking for a recommendation from me, I’d say go for it. This is a fine film and certainly one you won’t be forgetting for a long time.  However, don’t expect an easy ride. Perhaps save it for one of those nights you feel yourself to be in “genius” mode.