Dir. Guy Maddin
(2008, Not Rated, 79 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Having first learned of Canadian director Guy Maddin from Roger Ebert, one of his biggest fans, I last year sought out Brand Upon the Brain!, a fascinating nightmare-memory film that evoked silent films but eventually tried my patience. With skepticism I’ve ventured now to My Winnipeg, which is similarly styled and autobiographical — Brand claimed to be “97-percent true” — but much more satisfying, taking a metaphorical backwards journey through the history of his hometown and his own troubling childhood memories.

A version of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr) is shown on a train, nodding off, trying to stay awake. The director himself narrates, describing his compulsive need to get out of Winnipeg once and for all, but all roads and rails seem to lead back in. It’s a city of sleepwalkers, he says, and no one can escape because of supernatural forces — the hidden forks under the city’s intersecting rivers have a hypnotic pull. The railways are like veins, but lulled into docile sleep its passengers drift back.

Maddin hopes that confronting his childhood will allow him means of escape, so he hires actors to play his family and reenacts scenes. His mother (Ann Savage), not unlike the mother in Brand Upon the Brain!, is domineering, sexually repressive, and endowed with mysterious powers of perception. The reenactments are sometimes whimsical, sometimes very moving in their candid revelations. It’s hard to tell how many of the film’s biographical elements are genuine and how many, if any, are a put-on, but the whole film feels exceptionally personal.

The film is non-linear, free-associating; it’s felt more than understood. The sleeping Guy Maddin is aboard a train of thought, dreaming his way through a vivid assemblage of maternal dread, homoerotic anxiety, anger at the changing face of his town and the loss of his father, and ambivalence about leaving his home. Is Maddin finally able to get away from Winnipeg? Hard to say. Sometimes you look so closely at it that you don’t want to.