Brand Upon the Brain!Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/18/07 00:30:32
In a move of pure showmanship of a kind not seen since Francis Ford Coppola presented a restored version of Abel Gance’s silent epic “Napoleon” in selected cities with a live orchestra playing along with the film, Guy Maddin is presenting his latest work, the silent film “Brand Upon the Brain,” in a series of special engagements throughout the country with a dazzling array of performers lending a hand with the screenings–a 10-piece orchestra, a group of Foley artist providing live sound effects, a castrato (okay, “male soprano”) and a celebrity narrator (in Chicago, those duties will be handled by Crispin Glover–other cities have had the likes of Joan Chen, Isabella Rossellini and Eli Wallach) who will be recounting the story. Of course, only a handful of the screenings will feature the full show while others will contain a normal soundtrack with pre-recorded music and sound effects and a narration by Rossellini. For those unable to get tickets to the gala performances, seeing the film by itself might seem like kind of a cheat but I am here to tell you that if you can’t get into one of the full-fledged shows, you should still check the film out because even on its own, it is the kind of mind-blowing experience that will leave even the most jaded moviegoers shaken and stirred and positively dizzy with the possibilities of what can be achieved in cinema when a true original is at the controls.Almost impossible to describe–the closest I could possibly come is to have you imagine a cross between “Frankenstein,” “The Hardy Boys,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Remembrance of Things Past”–the film begins as housepainter Guy Maddin is summoned by his dying mother to the remote island where he grew up in order to repaint the lighthouse in anticipation of her final visit. Most of the story deals with his memories of growing up there with his older sister (Maya Lawson) as part of a strange orphanage run by his parents–Mother (Gretchen Krich) rules the joint with an iron fist and Father (Todd Moore) is constantly puttering around in the basement lab performing unspeakable brain experiments on his ever-ready supply of orphans. One day, the isolation of the island is shattered by the arrival of Chance and Wendy Hale (both played by Katherine E. Scharhon), a pair of crime-solving, harp-playing twin siblings who arrive on the island to investigate the mysterious goings-on. Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) falls in love with Wendy at first sight but despairs when she seems to disappear as suddenly as she has arrived.
Actually, it is brother Chance who had to flee and Wendy has merely disguised herself as her brother in order to solve the case on her own. Complications arise when Guy’s sister finds herself falling in love with “Chance” without realizing his true identity. Although not necessarily adverse to the attention, Wendy/Chance tries to protect her disguise from her pursuer amorous advances by declaring that only the person wearing “the kissing gloves” will be allowed to touch the other–a fine rule if you are in constant possession of said gloves but not so fine if you aren’t.
There is more–much more–but the narrative cooked up by Maddin and co-writer George Toles is so densely constructed and rapidly deployed that it is almost impossible to fully summarize it after only one viewing. Strangely enough, I didn’t really mind not knowing exactly what was going on because the film is so packed with haunting imagery, hilariously deadpan humor (including suicide threats as teaching aides and the soon-to-be-immortal line “You look like you just got out of the bed of a seducer”) and what-the-fuck? moments that I was more than content to simply go along for the ride. Visually, the film is a wonder from start to finish and when I later read that Maddin shot the entire thing in little more than a week, I was even more stunned because the compositions are so arresting that I would have assumed that months of labor went into bringing them to the screen. The cast of virtual unknowns that Maddin has recruited fearlessly tackle the challenges of creating characters and portraying emotions entirely through physical action instead of dialogue. Of them, I was especially taken with the sweetly seductive turn from newcomer Katherine E. Scharhon as Chance and Wendy–no matter what her guise, she has the kind of indescribable screen chemistry that the camera adores and I suspect that as soon as the film ends, many audience members will find themselves scrambling to IMDB to find out where she came from and where she can be seen next.If there is a flaw to “Brand Upon the Brain,” it is that Maddin goes through his ideas at such a relentless pace that it gets a little exhausting towards the end. That quibble aside, this is the work of a master filmmaker at the peak of his game and whether you see it with the complete sideshow or not, it is a film that will leave a brand upon the brain of anyone who encounters it that will not fade away for a long, long time.
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