Maya Lawson and 'Brand Upon the Brain!'

Dir. Guy Maddin
(Not Rated) ★ ★

I had heard a lot about Guy Maddin, mostly from Roger Ebert, who has long been an admirer of the Canadian director. But Brand Upon the Brain!, from 2006, slipped further and further out of my grasp. I watched at first with fascination, but as the minutes wore on I found myself pushing back against my chair, leaning away from the film. It inspires great interest until it tumbles so deep down the rabbit hole of Maddin’s imagination that it finally inspires indifference. It raises a “Keep Out!” sign for an audience that ventures near.

The story is about a man named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), who I hope is not an autobiographical character or else there should be a sweeping investigation of Canadian child-care services. The making-of documentary on the DVD is called “97 Percent True,” describing the story’s psychological and emotional veracity, but where to draw the line between Maddin’s life and his fantasies I can’t say with confidence. As told by the film, his parents ran an orphanage out of their lighthouse and were guilty of deplorable crimes against the children: the mother is a grotesque tyrant, and the father is a scientist performing human experiments. Guy (played in childhood flashbacks by Sullivan Brown) and his sister Sis (Maya Lawson) were also subject to their parents’ abuse.

The movie is made in the style of silent films; the stark, high-contrast black-and-white footage appears as though the stock has survived decades of age and neglect. The editing is choppy; staccato images flash across the screen to eerie effect, further elevated by Isabella Rossellini’s evocative narration and Jason Staczek’s score. Rossellini’s is only one of nearly a dozen narrator tracks available on the DVD, but I confess to only having had the strength to sit through one.

The adult Guy returns to repaint the lighthouse at his mother’s request, and the place reignites memories of old traumas; I find that films about memory are best told in unconventional ways (Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir), and Maddin’s antiqued, silent-film approach conjures the fearsome specters of childhood anxiety, early sexual curiosity, and claustrophobic dread.

But then the film finds the deep end and goes off it. From the intriguing material of childhood repression, Maddin’s screenplay, co-written by George Toles, drifts like a plastic bag in the wind to reanimation, youth potions, trances, androgyny, and at one point I think maybe cannibalism. It’s a headlong rush into unmitigated weirdness, and there came a point where I couldn’t follow him any further.

Brand was distributed uniquely, as a national tour; the film was not only shown but performed, with the orchestra, narrators, and Foley artists accompanying it in exhibitions across the country. I suspect a large part of its appeal is the live experience, which is lost in the private solitude of a DVD viewing. In a theater setting, it’s not only a story in the style of silent films, it’s a time machine transporting the entire audience to another era, an era that never existed in quite this way.

Ebert’s review sums it up well: “In a sense, you will enjoy Brand Upon The Brain! most if you are an experienced moviegoer who understands (somehow) what Maddin is doing or a naive filmgoer who doesn’t understand that he is doing anything. The average filmgoer might simply be frustrated and confused.” I consider myself an above-average filmgoer, but there you have it. Those of you who are more closely attuned to films of this sort probably already know who you are. For those who aren’t, you may want to take my word for it.