Rating: 4/5Few directors are as drawn to the idea of film as surrealist self-evaluation as Guy Maddin. The Canadian filmmaker has functioned for the past few decades as a kind of David Lynch of the North, merging that director’s disturbing dream imagery with an emphasis on silent film aesthetic, demonstrating a particular fondness for resurrecting German Expressionist techniques and style. But Maddin’s latest, Keyhole, may be his most Lynchian yet, its structure and framing more Eraserhead than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Keyhole is essentially The Odyssey as a David Lynch haunted house film, focused on the quest of one Ulysses (Jason Patric), as he attempts to return “home.” In interviews, Maddin has stated that Keyhole is based on his own experiences with the nature of memory in his home after the death of his father as well as his sudden interest in Homer’s epic masterpiece, but it also fits neatly within the iconography Maddin has already established within his canon, with plenty of absurdist humor and layers upon layers of symbolism and imagery. At the heart of this is the realization that “home,” in Ulysses’ case, is less a physical destination than a psychological and spiritual one.
Standing in Ulysses’ way are both his family and his “crew,” which in this case is comprised not of warriors and sailors but bootleggers and gangsters, all of whom distract Ulysses from reclaiming his memories and figuring out what’s really going on. But none distract Ulysses more than his dead wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) and the father she keeps chained to her bed, both of whom lead Ulysses astray and kill off or corrupt his men. Ulysses’ own crew are equally predisposed to distracting him or heading towards outright mutiny but it only serves to embolden Ulysses or, in one especially epic scene, “shock” him back to recognition. Ulysses’ only resource on his quest to find his way back “home” is Denny (Brooke Palsson), a young woman who appears to be drowning through most of the film.
Though Denny’s drowning is depicted in symptoms of the actual act, it serves primarily as a comment on the nature of memory itself, with the notion that we are all constantly under the same threat as we attempt to make sense of our experiences. Maddin likewise utilizes loaded sexual imagery to get across his point that homes, and the idea of home itself, can be a form of bondage, arousing in certain aspects but suffocating in others. Maddin also notably reconfigures the idea of cancer as a kind of fetish object, with one secondary character donning erotic jewelry that emphasizes a lump in her breast (or at least its location) rather than hiding or minimizing it. The sexual aspect of Keyhole is erotic without ever being exploitative or pornographic. It’s simply a conduit for Maddin’s own fetishization of death and vulnerability throughout his films.
Keyhole never quite lives up to the insanely creative highs of masterworks like The Saddest Music in the World or Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, but Keyhole is nonetheless a breathtaking work from the director that showcases the startling originality of using film as a dream diary of sorts. Keyhole’s biggest success comes from the way it turns Maddin’s own eccentricities and peculiarities into an universal depiction of the disintegration of memory and the danger of nostalgia, allowing it to reach a kind of commonality that even Lynch is often incapable of achieving. Think of it as Hausu laced with Eraserhead, or The Haunting of Hill House mixed with equal parts The Public Enemy and George Méliès’dream symphonies– either way, Keyhole is a thoroughly unique work that demands attention.