A seething, phantasmagorical imbroglio even by Guy Maddin’s standards, “Keyhole” has something to do with a ’30s gangster (Jason Patric) whose mind is in an advanced state of disintegration. That the character is called Ulysses and is trying to find his way back home — or at least back to his bedroom — would seem to link Maddin’s latest, hopping off the festival circuit for a run at the IFC Center in New York, to Western civilization’s founding epic, if not high modernism’s paradigmatic prose work. Or maybe not.
Over the past 20 years, the Bard of Winnipeg has developed his own arcane, heavily eroticized mythology, based on his Icelandic forebears, his mother’s beauty shop, his obsession with his hometown hockey team – his specialty is backdating film history with purposefully anachronistic genre mashes. Here it’s something like “The Public Enemy” transposed to “The Old Dark House” and infused with a suggestion of old-fashioned blue movies. (Madden talks about his sources — “Spooks Run Wild”?! — in a wonderfully free-associative and typically confessional interview with ARTINFO’s Graham Fuller, although there are also intimations of the 1933 Pre-Code shocker “The Story of Temple Drake,” adapted from William Faulkner’s lurid “Sanctuary.”)
In any case, the mode is doggedly non-linear. Shot in smoky black and white, punctuated with superimpositions, filled with dissolving images, and riddled with non sequiturs, this gorgeous, turgid, voyeuristically-titled affair could be Maddin’s most abstract work. (It was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts and, like Maddin’s 2003 masterpiece “Cowards Bend the Knee,” could easily be imagined as an installation.)
After a chaotic violent montage, the action settles into a two-story frame house — which is to say, a movie set — littered with bodies, some of them alive. A police raid is expected. A wild party is either imminent or recently concluded. The place is populated by heavily made-up floozies in various states of dishabille, paired off with plug-uglies in newsboy caps and undershirts. The upstairs bathtub gets very crowded. The house, like the movie, is a museum for odd contraptions. Ulysses has evidently arrived with a pair of kidnapped hostages. One is a drowned girl; the other is his son, strapped into a homemade electric chair powered by a bicycle-driven generator. The reliably creepy Udo Kier drifts through the proceedings as some sort of doctor, brought to the house to bring the girl back to life. His X-rays show something like a handcuff under her lungs.
When one character tells another that someone else prefers the radio “tuned between stations,” he might be referring to the filmmaker’s own sensibility. Although everything is confined to the house, nothing is stable. The mood is lethargic yet sexually charged and the genealogy properly confused. The place is populated by specters, including Ulysses’s abandoned wife (Maddin favorite Isabella Rossellini), and her father, naked and rattling his chains. Actually, Mrs. Ulysses often seems more like Ulysses’s mother. (Her name, Hyacinth, recalls both the Spartan prince who, in Greek mythology was the original homosexual love object, and the second stanza of “The Waste Land” in which addressing “the hyacinth girl,” the poet describes himself as “neither living nor dead.”)
As the resident tough guy, Ulysses relentlessly pushes his phantoms around even as he travels from room to room seeking to rejoin Hyacinth in their boudoir. Ultimately, the gang turns on its leader and straps him into the electric chair, raising the possibility that the entire movie is something like the classic 1932 Warner Brothers’ cheapster “Two Seconds,” starring Edward G. Robinson, in which the anti-hero’s entire life flashes before him as he sits in the hot seat waiting for the warden to throw the switch. “I feel charged,” cries the man in the chair.
A comedy set in a haunted movie studio, “Keyhole” has a family resemblance to Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” (to which Maddin paid homage with his faux ’60s underground psychedelic orgy film “The Little White Cloud That Cried”) as well as Pat O’Neill’s more recent ghost noir “The Decay of Narrative.” Like those, it’s a carnival of souls. There’s a pervasive sense of a moribund medium galvanized back to life — it hardly seems coincidental that “Keyhole” is Madden’s first digitally shot film.