Brand Upon the Brain!
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I will try to write this review without using the words “weird,” “strange,” “odd,” or any other such synonym, but I make no guarantees.
Canadian writer/director director Guy Maddin loves silent movies. He loves the wild overacting usually associated with the era. He loves the deteriorated film stock that we in the present day get to see. He loves the twisted Paul Leni-esque mythologies that come with certain fantasies and melodramas of the early 1920s. Hence all of his own films have been silent films, shot on aged-looking film stock, usually with intertitles, and only occasional bouts of colors and sound. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you may want to lower yourself in slowly, like into a hot bathtub, to get used to the… uh… unique aesthetic of his films.
Maddin’s newest, “Brand Upon the Brain!,” is a superlative personal myth that is borne of dreams, ambition, and his own onerous quest to keep the art form of silent film alive.
At an abandoned island orphanage/lighthouse, “Guy Maddin” (Erik Steffen Maahs) is fulfilling his blind mother’s deathbed wish that he paint it. While painting it, he begins having flashbacks to when he was a child there (now played by Sullivan Brown) with his sister. He and his sister lived a cloistered life under their mother (Gretchen Kritch) who was also the director/tyrant of the place, and who used the lighthouse to spy on the orphans, and used a noisy technobox called an aerophone to bark orders at her children. A mysterious young lady named Wendy (Katherine E. Scharhon) appears on the island one day, revealing that she is there to investigate a mystery. She is half of a team of brother-sister supersleuths called The Light Bulb Kids, stars of their own novel series. Wendy instantly falls in love with Guy’s sister, Sis (Maya Lawson), but feels she will have an easier time of seducing her if she disguises herself as her twin brother Chance. Sis is eagerly interested in being seduced by this boy (although there’s an aside that the Maddin kids don’t know the difference between boys and girls), and Guy soon becomes complicit in their trysts.
The mystery Wendy has come to investigate involve a series of mysterious scars on the backs of all the orphans’ heads. It turns out that Dad (Todd Moore) has been harvesting brain nectar from the children, which is used to keep Mother young. We never see dad’s face during the film.
There’s also a childhood cult on the island, a pair of Undressing Gloves, a creepy resurrection, conspiracies, betrayals, a revolution and usurpation, and a devoted relationship that would make Freud grin in satisfaction. The film does have intertitles, but in addition there is a recorded narration by Isabella Rossellini. The film originally ran at the Cinematheque in Hollywood with a live orchestra, a children’s choir, a castrato, a team of foley artists, and a series of guest narrators. I saw the recorded version.
“Brain Upon the Brain!” is… um… out of the ordinary, to be sure, but the dream logic and stream of consciousness storytelling has the power to sweep you along into its nightmarish vortex. The editing is fast and the images shake about the screen as if we’re spying out of someone else’s eyes. The whole experience can, and probably will be, disorienting; I had a slight headache at the end, and wasn’t sure what to make of a lot of the story elements. But it’s hard to point out a more unique and original film experience than seeing one of Guy Maddin’s on the big screen. If you only see it as a curiosity, than it’s one heck of a curiosity. If you go expecting more, the film has it for you as well.