Judge Joe Armenio thinks filmmaker Guy Maddin is being a little hard on himself.
Our review of The Quintessential Guy Maddin!, published December 10th, 2010, is also available.
"This is my autobiography as reflected in a shattered mirror."
Winnipeg-based auteur Guy Maddin is original enough that I'm tempted to call his work "indescribable," but that's an admission of defeat that a critic probably shouldn't make. His films are steeped in the narrative and cinematic conventions of 1920s silent melodrama, combined with a frenzied, jump-cutting montage style that suggests a marriage of Sergei Eisenstein, Richard Lester, and MTV. At its worst, his style can seem too glibly ironic; I wasn't a big fan of his other 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, mostly because Mark McKinney's smirking lead performance gave the viewer too much emotional distance from the fevered shenanigans of the plot. Cowards Bend the Knee is a much more satisfying film, a relentless and uncompromising work that uses melodrama as a vehicle through which to make a remarkably self-lacerating autobiographical statement.
Facts of the Case
Cowards Bend the Knee was originally presented at the 2003 International Film Festival in Rotterdam as a gallery installation, at which viewers watched its 10 six-minute "chapters" through a series of peepholes. Later it was shown in the same manner at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. The film is silent, with an appropriately romantic piano accompaniment; expository information and commentary are provided in intertitles, which are written with entertainingly grandiose Victorian rhetorical flourishes. The period in which it is set is unspecified, but the production suggests a late 1920s or early 1930s milieu. The central character is a hockey player named Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), who accompanies his pregnant girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) to a sordid hair salon where abortions are performed. While there, he abandons her for the salon owner's sexy daughter (Melissa Dionisio), who refuses to let Guy touch her until he avenges the murder of her father, which she suspects was orchestrated by her mother and her lover, one of Maddin's hockey-player cronies who also moonlights as a cop. The plot grows more expansive from there, with some dark doings involving the creepy Dr. Fusi (Louis Negi), who plans to give Guy a transplant of the dead man's hands, the return of Veronica's ghost, and a haunted wax museum.
Maddin's father was the team doctor for the Winnipeg Maroons, and his mother and aunt operated a hair salon; Cowards Bend the Knee is steeped in a precise evocation of the gendered realms around which his childhood revolved. The women's domain of the salon is, of course, focused on the physical, on personal adornment, and is shot through with a powerful sexuality and a fearsome female power; likewise the hockey locker room, with its intense and (literally) steamy homoeroticism of men in close proximity, undressing and showering together. Maddin uses the fevered emotions created by melodramatic style as a way of evoking the heightened emotions of childhood, the ways in which one's mundane coming-of-age is in fact of epochal emotional significance.
Maddin is also, I think, captivated by the worldview of melodrama, its focus on the underground, the lustful and vicious and sordid. Of course, one of the primary traits of classical melodrama is its juxtaposition of good and evil—there is always a virtuous character to counter the villain—but Maddin is not at all interested in virtue. All of his characters are pretty lousy people, and worst of all is the directorial stand-in, the "Guy Maddin" character, who is driven primarily by lust, swayed from the virtuous course with disturbing ease, and in the end winds up encased in a wax museum devoted to men who are driven primarily by a fear of domesticity and have failed utterly in their relationships with women. Despite the enormous stylistic differences, I think one can place Cowards Bend the Knee in the same category with the films of Vincent Gallo (Buffalo '66 and The Brown Bunny), which share a similar anguished obsession with auteurial manhood. We can call it The Cinema of Narcissistic Masculine Self-Loathing, and it makes Woody Allen's self-deprecating bons mot look extremely mild.
Cowards Bend the Knee is not for the faint of heart; while Maddin's characteristic intensity was lessened in The Saddest Music in the World by the snarkiness of the script and performances, Cowards is relentless, its locations hermetic and cramped, its editing seizure-inducing. I like and admire the film a lot, and yet I'm glad it's only an hour long; I'm not sure how much longer such a tone could be sustained.
The grades given for video and audio quality are almost entirely arbitrary, since the goal is not to produce a pristine image, but to recreate the look and feel of watching a silent film; hence the images are occasionally smeary, the sound occasionally hissy. As far as I can tell, Zeitgeist has done a good job of reproducing the way Maddin intends the film to look and sound, but one would have to watch the original gallery installation to compare, which I haven't done. The DVD includes an audio commentary by Maddin, who spends most of the film's running time discussing the ways in which the film's images are inspired by childhood memories; he's a soft-spoken person, his manner the opposite of his films' intensity, but still very open and revealing: "I shouldn't be telling you this," he mutters at one point. "The Love-Chaunt Workbooks" presents roughly 30 minutes of footage, presented here as "post-production montage blueprints" of a "lost Maddin film" called Love-Chaunt of the Chimney, if the effusive introduction on the DVD is to be believed (it reads suspiciously like a Maddin intertitle). These are, in fact, new films associated with Cowards Bend the Knee (one of them is Louis Fusi's audition for the role of Dr. Negi); whatever their provenance, they are impressionistic portraits of characters, largely non-narrative, designed "to find the overlooked or too hastily passed over moments in each shot." Brand Upon the Brain is a nine-minute behind-the-scenes look at Maddin's new film, "my first foreign film," as he calls it, shot in Seattle with the help of The Film Company, "the only not-for-profit film studio in the world." Finally, the DVD contains a photo archives which consists of production stills as well as vintage photos of the Winnipeg Maroons and the Maddin family hair salon, from the director's own collection.
I was planning to say that Cowards Bend the Knee is probably not the best place to start for the Maddin-curious, given its uncompromising strangeness, but why not dive right into the deep end of the pool? It's a terrific film, the work of an original and unusually generous artist.
Cowards Bend the Knee is probably best seen through a gallery peephole, but the DVD is good enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio Commentary by Director Guy Maddin
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