A nested series of narrative bursts framed by an instructional video that purports to explain how to take a bath, The Forbidden Room melds the heavy symbolism of small-bore psychoanalysis with early-Hollywood camp to create a dizzying, and surprisingly engaging, feature that self-consciously manipulates the visual, aural and narrative aspects of film, to great comic effect.

The movie opens with a tanned, heavyset man in thick glasses and silk robe, expounding on the social history and relevance of bathing. A thin man’s bathing regime becomes a doomed submarine crew counting down the hours until their oxygen runs out, becomes a lumberjack’s mission to save Margot from a literal den of thieves, becomes Margot’s dream, then back to the cave, then back to the submarine, then back to the bath, then again to the submarine, and now to a jungle, where Margot is being offered as a virginal sacrifice to an exploding volcano. And so on, for just under two hours. Silent film-style title cards introduce new characters and carry much of the expository weight; images are projected onto flimsy sets and across the actors’ bodies, which melt and reappear as new characters.

Dreams, amnesia, double-personalities, incest, rape, death, madness, addiction—all are explicitly gestured at in such a way that provokes laughter rather than horror. In the penultimate scene, a woodsman enters the Forbidden Room of the submarine—where captain and crew take their final breaths—and opens The Book of Climaxes, whose own climax arrives as a large bomb is detonated on an enormous brain afloat in a placid sea. Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson do well to avoid the self-satisfied obliquity of much experiential cinema and embrace the comic potential within it, though ultimately their intervention does little to push beyond the established parameters of the medium.

The Forbidden Room
Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
The Screen
130 min.
NR