Image courtesy of Queryzo on Wikimedia Commons.

David Lynch’s Grim Movie Twin: The Universe of Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin, the Canadian filmmaker, and artist who perpetually remains in the shadow of his more famous fellow citizens, Cronenberg and Villeneuve. Throughout his career, he has never won a prize at any of the major festivals. The director can be rightly called the “hidden treasure” of world cinema. He is, like BetChan Casino, known and revered by his fans, and we hope he will shine and make a name for himself yet. Today, let’s talk about the key motifs and themes in Maddin’s films. 

How He Makes His Movies?

Guy Maddin shoots as if nothing has happened to cinema since the days of Eisenstein and Murnau. Disassociated from modern subjects and techniques, Maddin has completely forgotten about color and only rarely mentions sound.  His actresses are reminiscent of Dita Parlo, and his scripts never have a happy ending, but there are plenty of perversions and severed limbs that would have alarmed even Freud.


Maddin skillfully balances between the avant-garde and the mainstream. On the one hand, his plots are interesting to almost everyone, but on the other hand, they strike an imaginary world where neither Spielberg nor even Hitchcock ever existed.

Ingredients for Creating a Masterpiece

Most of Maddin’s films are made with the same ingredients. For him, there is no difference between big and small problems. Maddin contemplates love and hate: characters plotting against each other, weaving an intricate web of problems.  But unlike ordinary family dramas, these retro tapes have their own peculiarities.


First is the presence of prosthetics in each film, the design of which the director especially dodged in “The Saddest Music in the World.” The glass legs are reminiscent of capitalist vanity, something in which Maddin has reimagined Colossus. Pride tries to hold on to the fragile legs, but they break, revealing the fall of the hero and all his ideals.


Inspired by films with Lon Chaney, who often played amputees, the director skillfully used the allegory of inferiority. This is how the Brothers Grimm applied cruelty in their fairy tales.


Maddin sometimes presents himself as a rabid primitivist – working in “broad strokes,” unintentionally stripping characters of their limbs and eventually admiring the “accidental” handicapped. What does this do for the story? On the one hand, such a move visually enriches the film; on the other hand, it places an emotional ersatz of events within it. For example, in “Archangel,” there is a character with a prosthetic leg and memory lapses. 


Here the missing leg serves as a reminder of some kind of love drama – beneath the shell hides an unhealed wound. The character’s leg is decorated with signs of bravery and valor, but of someone else’s bravery and valor. The prosthesis gives him a sense of false pride, for he has no memory of what he has done anyway. His limb is prey par excellence, for it is unclear what this missing limb is: whether it is a missing body part or the rest of his body.  Hence, such characters in Maddin’s films are both deformed objects possessed by impulsive action and repulsive “sketches” of subjects playing a role.


The next “obsessive” themes that wander from film to film are the image of the father and the leitmotif of incest. In the first case, the director, through his films, plays up a kind of communication with the parent he lost as a child. The reference to the harsh older man (“Dead Father,” “My Father is 100”) is accompanied by references to autobiographical details, and the conflict with the father often unfolds around the woman.

This Is How You Remind Me of What I Really Am

Memories from the past are in one way or another indirectly present in each of Maddin’s films. A prime example of this is the picture “Brand on the Brain”, which tells the story of the director’s family. The family runs a lighthouse orphanage in Seattle, and one of the acting characters is a prototype of young Maddin. On-screen, the orphans are as if under the influence of drugs, as if they were victims of a macabre experiment. Their behavior hints at the viewer’s sexual exploitation. The mother of the family behaves suspiciously. There is a parallel conflict between mother and daughter, which unfolds against the backdrop of the latter’s emerging puberty. The mother does not like it. In all this madness, the director manages to portray so subtly, so Dickensianly, the creepy subconscious battles between the unnamed sexual tastes of mother and daughter, that he does not shy away from using the background of scorned orphans for this purpose.


As in “Cowards Bending Knees…” many details from Maddin’s past were simply handed out to various characters, like shards of a broken mirror.  With the plot, he pulled it all together but swapped the stories around. The pieces of the author’s life on the screen are shuffled to become more cinematic and therefore understandable to the viewer. The author’s life in the film appears as a highly artistic fake, like Roman copies of the Greek originals from which we know ancient sculpture.

Oppressive Themes of the Director’s Work 

The next oppressive theme of the director’s work is incest. In “Caution” (1992) it reaches Shakespearean proportions – It seems that all the characters sleep with their relatives and kill each other. Debauchery and carnage, no worse than in Macbeth. 


But the uncomplicated problem of incest hides something more – the director’s sarcastic attitude to reality, namely, a critique of the banal use of child abuse in many films of the time. 


According to Maddin: “Screenwriter George Towles and I thought it would be fun to make a film in defense of incest-if only to slap the producers of these platitudes in the face. Incest was just an excuse to look at age-old problems from a different angle.”

The Urge to Experiment

The urge to experiment is, in general, one of the director’s key sources of inspiration. For example, he translated the old story of Dracula into the language of ballet.  In the film, the female half tries to find love in a crushing atmosphere of unhinged masculinity, where all the men are very jealous of their romantic rivals. The figure of Dracula is nominal, lust and rage rule the ball, and love becomes “the battlefield on which armies converge in the night.


The motif of confrontation between the sexes can also be found in the film “Arkhangelsk”. The city is famous for the fact that even after the end of the revolution and civil war fierce fighting between the inhabitants was still going on. People simply forgot that the war was over. 


As a result, after some time had passed, it was mostly the wounded, the sick, and the elderly who were left there. Not surprisingly, this place attracted the attention of the director, becoming a kind of landscape from the dream. 


A wonderful location to bring together several stunned, shell-shocked, longing for love characters and make them fight, even when the war is lost. At the same time, in Archangel, some of the actors play under hypnosis in a number of scenes, which seems to continue Maddin’s desire to find new forms and ways of filmmaking.

Choice of Actors

As for his choice of actors, in the distant and aloof Siberian Winnipeg, the first known actor in his films was Isabella Rossellini. Maddin is the kind of artist who wants to create a modest magic around his work, a specific universe, without the modern recognizable faces that can ruin everything.  Rossellini’s face belongs to several eras, including the ’40s, her mother Ingrid Bergman’s glory years. The same can be said of Maria de Medeiros, an actress with a particular ’20s beauty. And Greg Klymkiw, who often produces Canadian independent films, including several of Maddin’s films (Tales of Gimli Hospital, Archangel).  But at the same time, he was involved in these films also as an actor. 


As the director recalls: “After I saw a few pictures of Eisenstein,” Stachka “and others, in which appear, huge fat plutocrats – the factory owners and capitalists, I realized that Greg was to play this role. He’s a good theatrical actor, he has a very expressive face.”

Human Relationships Are Key to Everything

Maddin’s films, on the other hand, address the basics of human relationships. They are reminiscent of a boy borrowing his father’s cologne to smell like him. Yes, there is a desire to resemble movies from the past in his techniques, but that doesn’t mean his paintings are fake. They are real. Not because they remind us of life, but because they evoke in us a series of illusions, which is sometimes the real being.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *