The most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists), Guy Maddin has enjoyed a unique career trajectory. Cowards Bend the Knee is hardcore Maddin—appropriately, this wildly tawdry hour-long hallucination was originally shown as a 10-episode peep show. Although the layered, metaphoric combination of masochistic fantasy and blatant wish fulfillment that constitutes the movie’s narrative is irresistible, Maddin’s mise-en-scéne 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 and 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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2005