Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 01/25/05 00:00:35

"Oedipus Wrecks."
5 stars (Awesome)

For the residents of the Alpine Valley hamlet of Tolzbad in the late 19th century, their greatest fear is of making the slightest noise and triggering an avalanche that would destroy the village. Their entire lives are muffled. People speak only in modulated tones. Musical instruments are “played” silently, or in acoustically soundproofed chambers. When a widow takes the notion to crank up the gramophone and dance with her two sons, the three of them cover the windows with protective drapes made from sheepskins so that the music can't seep out. Even the vocal chords of all the region’s animals have been surgically severed in order to avert any unintentional disaster. When a dog barks frantically, all one hears is the unnerving clacking of its teeth. The villagers' daily comings-and-goings are punctuated by their admonitions to each other. "Careful," one will say, "Don't spill it." “Never gamble with life,” counsels another. "Peril," all are assured, "awaits the incautious traveler," and restraint in all behavior is the dictated expectation.

Welcome to the deliriously inventive, wildly melodramatic, and blackly comic world of Guy Maddin – this time set in the Bavarian foothills of a mythical land called Tolzbad, a stand-in for Maddin's Winnipeg. In this setting, always looming over the murmur of hushed voices are the volatile emotions and closely guarded family secrets that, if unleashed, will surely bury them all. Underneath the veneer of gentility, a hotbed of sexual repression and incestuous lust percolates. Spouses hide their perfidy; siblings, their jealousy. Parents and their children wage a constant war of treachery and murderous intent against each other. When a dutiful son succumbs to his shameful Oedipal desires, he does the only thing he can do under the circumstances – he presses a burning coal to his lips, cuts off his fingers, and throws himself off a precipice, triggering an emotional avalanche that reverberates throughout Tolzbad.

Dreamily filmed in a glorious process much like that used for early cinematic two-strip Technicolor, Careful is a feast for the eyes and an intoxicating homage to German Expressionism and the German "mountain pictures" of the early 20th century, with a bit of Frank L. Baum stirred in to the heady brew. Think of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, Josef von Sternberg, Leni Riefenstahl, and The Wizard of Oz, and you start to get the picture.

If the visuals are homage, the goofily demented dialogue belongs entirely to Maddin and his frequent collaborator, George Toles, who had me alternately – and often simultaneously – mesmerized by the melodrama and giggling wildly at its outlandishness (when my jaw wasn’t dropped, that is). The film hits the ground running with an hysterical opening litany (diatribe) of adages, most of which start with the word "Don't," and which any child can attest he or she has heard more than once too often. Later, a prospective lover proffers a wad of hair to her beloved, with a heartfelt, "here is all the hair I've lost in the past few weeks." Likewise, I can't imagine a more sublimely absurd lovers' exchange than, "Oh, Klara, you are a frisky one!" and the rejoining, "Even the reindeer are such, when the spring is coming."

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