The films of Guy Maddin are nearly review proof. While his films do vary from one another, you either clear the hurdle that is his idiosyncratic style, or you don’t. Yes, The Saddest Music in the World is (slightly) more mainstream than Careful or Brand Upon the Brain, but all feel like long-lost and utterly bizarre art films from a bygone era. Guy Maddin draws heavily on the film techniques of the silent and early sound era, experimental films, and even old stag film loops, marrying them to plots which deal with gender confusion, incest, patricide, matricide, infanticide, amputation, oppression, failure, and more. His films let us in on a fever dream. Maddin haters feel his films are forced, or poorly paced and drag on too long without coming to any real point. There are definitely pacing issues with Maddin’s feature films, but they are always fascinating.
Brand Upon the Brain begins with Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) rowing to his childhood home-an island with an orphanage in a lighthouse. His parents ran the orphanage, and he led a privileged life wandering the island while the orphans alternated between cleaning for Mother and being locked in their rooms. Guy received a last request from his mother to repaint the lighthouse, and while doing so he recalls his life there-and how it ended.
Mother ruled the orphanage with suicide threats and guilt, while keeping a watchful eye on everyone from the lighthouse’s light, exposing the misdeeds and escape attempts of the orphans and her children. While Guy is a good boy, his Sis is constantly facing Mother’s suspicions that she is doing naughty, sexual things, such as allowing her hair to fall in her face. Father, meanwhile, is always working in his lab on something, exactly what Guy doesn’t know. The family communicates through Father’s Aerophones, which are essentially little gramophones. Only those who love each other can use them, but they are not always reliable methods of communication and sometimes old messages repeat themselves. Meanwhile, the oldest orphan, Savage Tom, is holding rituals out on the island with the other orphans, and threatens to sacrifice little Neddie, Guy’s only friend.
To complicate matters, one half of The Light Bulb Kids, a pair of brother/sister kid sleuths, arrives on the island. Wendy Hale immediately entrances Guy, but Wendy is more attracted to Sis. Wendy takes on her brother Chance’s identity (or is she always both?), and reveals her reason for being on the island-to investigate why the children adopted out of the island have strange holes in their heads and necks. Sis has an immediate crush on Chance, while Guy looks up to his new friend, though he misses Wendy, hoping he can make her reappear by doing the same things he did the day she arrived. All three co-operate to find out exactly what Father is doing to the children.
Brand Upon the Brain was originally presented in select markets with a live orchestra, Foley artists, and narrator. Seeing the film on DVD, with canned music, sound effects, and narration by Isabella Rossellini (Cousins), it is difficult to judge just how good it was live. On DVD the film is intriguing, but at times it does seem to meander, with too many elements competing for the attention. The performances are perfect for the material, and Maddin fans should definitely check Branded Upon the Brain out. Those who are looking for their first Maddin experience might want to start with The Saddest Music in the World.