The most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists), Guy Maddin has enjoyed a unique career trajectory. Since his six-minute comeback The Heart of the World, Maddin has gone from triumph to triumph: Last year’s dance doc Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary garnered the Winnipeg auteur his best-ever New York reviews; released in May, The Saddest Music in the World has proved a modest commercial success. But Cowards Bend the Knee, made between Dracula and Saddest Music, is hardcore Maddin—appropriately, this wildly tawdry hour-long hallucination was originally shown as a 10-episode peep show.
Grotesquely autobiographical, albeit apparently set on a specimen slide of seething microorganisms, Cowards Bend the Knee opens with the Winnipeg Maroons involved in a crucial hockey game. A disorienting welter of introductions includes the Maroons’ star player Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), his pregnant girlfriend, Veronica (Amy Stewart), the sinister team physician Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin), and the hard-faced blonde Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), who manages the phantasmagorical Night Clinic—”Beauty salon by day, bordello by night”—where Veronica is taken after the Maroon victory to get her abortion.
The procedure, which Dr. Fusi performs in a sort of corset with a cigarette holder clenched jauntily between his teeth, has nearly as many spectators as the hockey game. Midway through, Maddin cravenly dumps Veronica to pursue Liliom’s daughter Meta (Melissa Dionisio), who wanders in on the operation. The provocative vixen, crouching topless on a pile of hockey gloves, refuses to let Guy touch her until he agrees to avenge her father who, she explains, has been murdered by her mother and her mother’s lover, Guy’s teammate Shaky (David Stuart Evans).
The third episode isn’t even over yet. By the time we reach the fourth, entitled “Meta’s Bedroom,” we learn that this Manitoba Electra keeps her dead father’s hands in a jar; she wants Guy to demonstrate his love for her by amputating his mitts and grafting on her dad’s (as if that wouldn’t implicate poor Guy in the incest taboo). To complicate this turgid psychosexual morass, the hero’s father, Maddin Sr. (Victor Cowie), the radio-announcing “Voice of the Maroons,” is in love with Veronica—or, rather, Veronica’s ghost—while the Maroons themselves are engaged in a match with the Soviet hockey team. The surplus of mothers includes the real-life Maddin’s own, who plays Veronica’s grandmother.
Although the layered, metaphoric combination of masochistic fantasy and blatant wish fulfillment that constitutes the movie’s narrative is irresistible, Maddin’s mise-en-scène is no less remarkable than his evocation of forbidden desire and monstrous repression. The camera, handled by the director himself, is nervous, the images unstable. Transitions are marked by irises. Intertitles stand in for dialogue. The action is accompanied by a combination of classical and program music, as well as sound effects. The murky ambience, and even some of the motifs, suggest early-’30s horror films like The Mystery of the Wax Museum or Mad Love. But what’s truly extraordinary about this movie—which strikes me on two viewings as Maddin’s masterpiece—is that it not only plays like a dream but feels like one.
Cowards Bend the Knee has enough incident for three movies, but Film Forum has rounded out the bill with two Maddin shorts, Sissy Boy Slap Party (as if Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic Fireworks had been made for the Three Stooges) and Sombra Dolorosa (a mock Mexican fantasia that crams masked wrestlers, hacienda melodrama, mariachi bands, and an eclipse into seven frantic minutes). Suffering by comparison is The Phantom Museum, in which those fastidious connoisseurs of the fusty, the Quay Brothers, survey medical curiosities in the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome.