Guy Maddin is the type of artist whose overwhelming originality leaves audiences feeling powerless and in a state of stunned admiration. With Brand Upon the Brain!, the specific result is a disorienting trip through Maddin’s auteurist mind, which has channeled the primitive days of cinema and modernized them to astounding proportions. He has always been an immensely personal filmmaker, leading some to peg him as a self-indulgent, overly arty experimenter. However, someone who takes such an innate fondness to the mythologizing of their youth and rummages the art of film in the process is someone who should never be labeled so negatively.
2006’s Brand Upon the Brain! is a pyschosexual expedition through Maddin’s zany childhood. Utilizing the techniques of silent film, grand-guignol, and experimental film, he devises a constant mood of menace surrounding the Black Notch Island he inhabited in his youth. His reinvention of these methods is evident in the technically sophisticated breed of editing he presents. Superimpositions, marauded speed-up and slow-down effects, and jump cuts are relentless. One minute, you may feel like you’re viewing a student’s flashy experimental piece, and the next you’ll be in absolute awe by the amount of work that must have been put into it. In a Poe-esque telltale way, Isabella Rossellini narrates the fantasy of the fictionalized Guy. His mother is a forever-watchful spy, perched at the top of the family’s lighthouse, which is also home to a laboratory rat father and a legion of orphans. The coming of a woman named Wendy who plays a sweet harp melts Guy’s heart, but soon enough she transforms into her brother Chance Hale to pursue Guy’s sister.
Maddin fills this absurdist fantasy with recurrent imagery such as “The Horn of Chastity”, “The Kissing and Undressing Gloves”, and “The Harvest of the Nectar”, which is perceptibly the juice from the father’s orphans. What sounds bizarre and off-putting on paper is actually humorous and enchanting in Maddin’s hands. Brand Upon the Brain! feels a bit like childhood story time, except with a dark edge and a discombobulated mood. If you’re a fan of David Lynch but also enjoy Charlie Chaplin, you’ll find great satisfaction in this visual feast.
The film will be playing tonight (August 19th) as part of Brattle’s “Best of the Oughts” series in a double feature with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. See here for showtimes.