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Keyhole [DVD]  
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“I’m only a ghost, but a ghost isn’t nothing.”
Starring Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini, Keyhole is a rousing 1930s gangster picture set in a haunted house. It is a ghost sonata in which dream and waking life are seamlessly blended to isolate and expose universal feelings.
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The above quote is from Guy Maddin, director of 'Keyhole', and it pretty much sums up the film. If you're looking for a comprehensible narrative look elsewhere. Maddin has never been one to deal in straightforwardness and 'Keyhole' is no exception. Why tell a story straight when you can tell it crooked has always been his MO. Unlike most of the Canadian director's earlier cinematic delights, 'Keyhole' appears to be striving for a more serious tone; gone the obvious cranky, quirky humour of 'The Saddest Music in the World', 'Careful', 'My Winnipeg', and numerous slapstick shorts. While Maddin does his usual rummaging through the history of old Hollywood for inspiration - in this case twisting the tropes of 40s melodramas and 30s gangster films - 'Keyhole' also draws on European arthouse surrealism and fantasy for its visual language. I'm thinking of Cocteau's 'Orphee' and Kumel's 'Malpertuis' as possible points of reference. You will doubtless think of others.
The plot, for what it's worth, is about a bunch of hapless gangsters who hole up in a haunted house after a shoot-out with the police. With a principal character called Ulysses you can imagine the mythical possibilities that follow as he fends off the ghosts of his past in the various rooms of the house. It's one of those narratives where real time and dream time become one and the same thing. It's pointless trying to separate them. Just go with the flow.
Of course, what makes this film eminently watchable (for those who like this kind of thing) is Guy Maddin's inventive visual style. The rapid editing (some Soviet-style montage in the shoot-out sequence) and wonderful fluidity and textural feel of the black & white (and flashes of colour) cinematography are a feast for the eyes. Often it's deliberately clunky and messy, but that's its charm. Maddin's work is the absolute antithesis of the glossy Hollywood blockbuster. He turns his very limited budgets to his advantage. The acting is generally OK - Isabella Rossellini looking rather matronly I have to say - though at times Maddin's touch seems uncertain. Where a director like David Lynch (in 'Blue Velvet') moves effortlessly from extreme violence to surreal comedy to kinky eroticism, Maddin seems less confident in expressing these kinds of moodswings. 'Keyhole' has sex and violence and humour but Maddin doesn't seem to know quite how far to go with them and how to juxtapose them to powerful effect. The violence is not violent enough and the sex is not erotic enough and the quirky humour is surprisingly reined in more than usual. Maybe 'Keyhole' will turn out to be a transitional film in Maddin's oeuvre - the film where he got a bit more serious than usual, where he pushed his talents into uncharted territory. Wherever it goes, Guy Maddin's idiosyncratic work is always well worth watching.
Basically the film is a melange of jokey film-school tricks and tropes recalling classic Noir and Surrealist films of the 40s and 50s with a nod to Citizen Kane chucked in. Oh, and American underground cinema of the 60s too (Kenneth Anger sort of thing). The structure pretentiously evokes Homer's Odyssey in as much we get to follow a central character (called --yes, you guessed it --Ulysses) played by Jason Patric on a quest for some sort of ill-defined resolution of issues concerning his father and which centres on him trying to reach his wife Hyacinth played by Isabella Rossellini located in a bedroom at the top of the family home. His naked dad is chained to her bed. That's about the level of symbolic subtlety you can expect from this complete tit of a masterpiece. It's dumb, posturing, art student in-jokery all the way.
The action all takes place in a bizarre house through which we follow characters from room-to room in a number of dream-like, non-sequiteur dramatic scenarios. This facilitates a low-budget, art-cinema aesthetic and creates an insular, highly claustrophobic atmosphere which is heightened by a busy soundtrack which sounds like a psychedelic stoner collage of noir/melodrama movie-music of the 50s cooked-up by Eastern Bloc film-makers of the late 60's-early 70s. Actually, to be fair, the soundtrack might work quite well in isolation. In the context of the film it mirror's the visual style perfectly, being essentially an impressionistic collage evoking an uncomfortable dream-state. In effect, it's a bit of a queasy overload perhaps, coming as it does on top of the equally busy visual style --but I guess that's appropriate here. I thought the pictures might just as easily have been cut to it as the other way round, since Maddin's visual imagination seems essentially dependent upon non-linear narrative assembled out of scenes conceived according to the logic of dream. The film is essentially one big collage of these things and as such is basically abstract. No need to knock yourself out trying to follow the plot, since all the obsessive behaviours, repetitions and references to memories don't actually add up to one --in the best tradition of Surrealist cinema. Not that this film is up to qualifying for that status, I hasten to add.
Cod-Surrealism is easy. The real thing is hard to do well; let alone with the panache of a true auteur like David Lynch. In certain respects this film is sub-Lynchian (particularly in the studied artificiality and considered contrivances) but evidently Maddin, by comparison, is an empty, derivative, pint-sized stylist. He's the collagist as recycler. A wannabe soul-miner using outre artistic licence as his route into the collective sub-conscious. Or something. Whatever his intention, this particular trip into weird doesn't get beyond style enough to scratch the surface and comes off as self-indulgent artistic posturing.
The script to Keyhole is way too self-conciously 'out-there' to actually pull-off the dramatic effects it goes for. The story, such as it is, suggests something like a visit to a house haunted by ghosts endlessly trapped pursuing a cycle of obsessive, unresolvable personal issues. That's roughly the viewer's perspective anyway. There's nothing to really latch onto or connect with. The viewer is strictly a voyeur. Hence the title I suppose. Unfortunately nothing genuinely surprises, disturbs or amuses either --because nothing is actually earned. It's all in-your-face quirky humour and contrived weirdness. It's knowing references and artificially concocted 'atmospheric' effects which fail to get under your skin. All delivered via a non-naturalistic performance style designed to flag-up that this is an altered consciousness scenario. Sometimes the acting works, but at others the performances seem rather amateurish.
The central one by Patric veers into a flippancy which only serves to highlight the stagey fun our ensemble is evidently having engaging with such an 'interestingly different' project. Since no-one really has a character of any depth to inhabit, you get the impression that all the luvvies (mostly a Canadian cast) were free to wing-it and bring whatever inspiration to their parts the moment bestowed --or not. Europeans Rossellini and Udo Kier (I think he's the one playing the doctor) play it straight and with a degree of understatement (trusting to script and director) and emerge in the best shape I thought despite them probably flying as blind as any other player. You wonder what such distinguished performers are doing in such a motley crew however. I assume their presence is a testament to the director's reputation in Canada.
But for what is so consciously an Art film, there isn't even a strikingly memorable visual idea in the entire tiresome, stream-of-conscousness tripe presented here. Forget about finding a beautiful, arresting image. Forget about pictorial poetry and an original vision such as the sort of thing one might reasonably anticipate from a major artist. The film has all the visual class of a low-budget music vid shot on hand-held small cameras. It resorts to the standard bag of tricks associated with that such as shifting focus and odd angles, dissolves, double-exposures; overtly artificial setting, props and sfx and of course rapid, colourful cutting techniques applied to glorious black and white picture-making --all the cliches of underground surrealism. Pictorially, it's samey and tedious throughout: a boring, OTTP visual soup.
Keyhole is as contrived and as pretentiously self-indulgent an exercise in 'Art Film' as I can recall seeing in a very long time. It's strictly one for the art pseuds.
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