3½ stars (out of four)
Wondrously strange, "Brand Upon the Brain!" transmits conceptual wavelengths ranging from Shakespearean disguise to Grand Guignol dread to a Nancy Drew-styled teen (very late teen) detective sniffing around the sinister doings at a Dickensian orphanage. Yet the results transcend pastiche. The film is a singular achievement.
In his eighth feature, director and co-writer Guy Maddin, based in Winnipeg and a longtime stalwart of the North American independent scene, has created a modern-day silent (Maddin has worked in this milieu before) that feels like a relic from the 1920s, shot in evocative black and white, full of Expressionist shafts of light and inky shadow. There's also a fair bit of nudity, shattering our general memories of the period being evoked. It fleshes out, literally, Maddin's droll use of title cards commenting on the action with exclamations such as: "Shabby lusts!"
The plot is gleefully preposterous, a "remembrance in 12 chapters" in which Maddin presents a fictionalized version of himself as well as a younger incarnation. The adult Guy returns after many years to the island where he grew up. As a favor to his dying mother he promises to paint the family home, a lighthouse that serves also as an orphanage. As he begins to paint, the "torrents of memory" pull him back to his youth.
Forbidden desire is the theme here. In flashback, we see young Guy pining for the exotic "girl detective" Wendy, a recent arrival on the island of lost souls. The sleuth disguises herself as her famous detective brother. In male drag, she seduces Guy's sister.
As imagined by Maddin and longtime co-writer George Toles, the island is akin to Shakespeare's Illyria in its potential for romantic yearning as well as sexual frustration. There's more of the latter than the former. Not for nothing does the film end with a quotation of the song from "Twelfth Night," the one about the "rain it raineth every day."
Heavy matters, yet the film's spirit is not. Maddin's playful technique incorporates everything from ragged iris shots to an editing rhythm approximating the leaps and skips of memory as deftly as it echoes the distressed herky-jerky quality of a decrepit old two-reeler. The cinematic exuberance extends to the original score by composer Jason Staczek, a marvelous complement in its style (nostalgic modernism, or modernist nostalgia) to the way the story is told visually.
To some "Brand Upon the Brain!" will seem simply hermetic, or indulgent. Certainly Maddin is capable of hermetic and indulgent work: An earlier feature, "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs," featured Shelley Duvall (!) and Frank Gorshin (!) fussing around a flagrantly artificial fantasy world a fjord or two over from Ibsen's "Lady From the Sea."
Maddin's mad-scientist amalgam of visual and textual influences has its campy side. But "Brand Upon the Brain!" reflects the experience of a grown-up artist who remembers well the exquisite miseries of adolescence. Through artifice we sometimes find the stuff that dreams, and waking nightmares, are made on.
Now here's the best part. For most showings of Maddin's film, audiences will hear Isabella Rossellini's recorded narration as part of the soundtrack. (That's the version I saw, and heard.) But as in a few other cities, most showings of "Brand Upon the Brain" this Friday through Sunday at the Music Box Theatre (773-871-6607) will feature a live orchestra, Chicago's Ensemble Noamnesia, accompanying Crispin Glover's live performance of the narration. Throw in a live sound effects team (a Foley team, in movie parlance) for maximum atmospherics, and you have an Everest of strangeness.
'Brand Upon the Brain!'
Directed by Guy Maddin; screenplay by Maddin and George Toles; photographed by Benjamin Kasulke; edited by John Gurdebeke; music by Jason Staczek; production design by Tania Kupczak; produced by Amy E. Jacobson and Gregg Lachow. A Film Company release; Fri.-May 24 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for nudity, violence and sexual themes).
Guy - Sullivan Brown
Neddie - Kellan Larson
Mother - Gretchen Krich
Chance/Wendy - Katherine E. Scharhon
Narrator - Isabella RosselliniCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times