Navigating the fragility of memory and the potentially deadly traps of reminiscence, saturated with regrets and guilt, twisting together disparate film elements and genres with nearly iconoclastic zeal, haunted and haunting, irreverent, horrific, inspired, wildly funny and more than a little disturbing -- Canadian art house auteur Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) is a seemingly semi-autobiographical meditation upon many things, chiefly familial relationship, love, childhood, and the inescapable and suffocating grip of the past. In the film, Guy Maddin (not played by Guy Maddin) returns to desolate little island in order to repaint the lighthouse, his childhood home and site of the orphanage that his tyrannical mother and mad scientist father had run. Though the lighthouse is falling apart, the good and dutiful son Guy will paint it, twice, in what very quickly becomes an obvious attempt to whitewash the trauma of his childhood. However, as William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past," and soon, despite his best efforts, Guy's past launches itself at both him and the screen in a dreamy and nightmarish whirl of phantasmagoria and Freudian anxiety.
Brand Upon the Brain! is ostensibly a silent film, complete with title cards and narration. It is black and white, frantically shot on rough and grainy super 8, and hypnotically edited. The film was originally designed to be a "cinematic experience," more a piece of performance art than a conventional theatrical film. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival with live musical accompaniment and several live foley artists; in the festival circuit it has been narrated live by Maddin himself, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini and Crispen Glover, amongst others. For this fantastical and metaphorical trip down memory lane, Maddin harvests nearly every genre imaginable, from melodrama to horror, fantasy to science-fiction, erotic thriller and teen detective story. Vampires, secret teen lesbians, Lord of the Flies-style savages and the re-animated dead become the principal characters on the stage of Guy's memory. And yet, as Maddin continually mashes up genres and themes and as he overlaps motifs and elements, a surprisingly coherent film emerges. The film never feels forced or disjointed; it all makes a type of emotional and resonant sense. In this sense, Maddin is very much a Canadian counterpart to David Lynch; however, unlike the often off-puttingly esoteric nature of the Lynch's narratives, even a casual film goer, were he able to withstand the unabashed art house sensibility of the film's style and storytelling, would easily be able to understand the broad sweeps of Brand Upon the Brain! Its touchstones and themes -- such as first love, maternal attachment, the ambivalence and ambiguity of adolescence -- are broad and universal enough that, though the film appears to be deeply personal it is immediately identifiable.
While it's clear that Brand Upon the Brain! is firmly couched within a metaphoric sensibility, it's difficult and probably deliberately impossible to firmly identify where biography breaks off and where fantastic and perhaps slightly indulgent metaphor takes over. Both metaphor and myth are, I think, a very appropriate vehicle for self-revelation and Maddin deftly uses both here. However, if I were to lodge one protest against the film it would be that it almost feels dishonest. By using his own name as the name of his protagonist, Maddin establishes an autobiographical tone that the film's more outrageous elements almost immediately challenge and call into question and you begin to suspect that autobiography is not on Maddin's agenda after all. The relationship between Guy and his mother, for instance, seems designed to inflame, and perhaps poke fun at, Freudian anxieties rather then legitimately explore deep-seated emotional or psychological issues. In fact, throughout most of the film I think it is more likely that Maddin has his tongue in his cheek rather than his head on the couch. It is perhaps best to think of the film not as an exploration of Maddin's past (of course, for all I know about Maddin's childhood, it may well be just that) but rather an exploration of the past in general, it's impact and import, and its highly subjective nature. Guy becomes not so much a director's surrogate as an audience's and that, when executed as expertly as here, is a thrilling experience of which to be a part.
Every time I think that the limits of film have been bounded and set, I find someone like Maddin who brazenly over-steps the bounds and pushes the medium in directions I hadn't expected. Brand Upon the Brain! isn't a perfect film and it certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, chances are that unless you count yourself amongst the pretentious cinematic elite you probably haven't even heard of the film. It is, however, an exuberant, thrilling and rather marvelous little film full of whimsy, menace, sentimentality and sudden and bright splashes of affection. Brand Upon the Brain! is the first Guy Maddin film that I've seen -- an embarrassing admission for a Canadian critic, I know. After seeing it, however, I can say that I am indeed very eager to catch up on some of his other films such as The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's vision in Brand Upon the Brain! is compelling and unique and worth the time of anyone who loves film.