(director: Guy Maddin; screenwriter: George Toles; cinematographer: Michael Marshal; editor: Reginald Harkema; music: John McCulloch; cast: Pascale Bussières (Juliana Kossel), Shelley Duvall (Amelia Glahn), Frank Gorshin (Cain Ball), Alice Krige (Zephyr Eccles), R.H. Thomson (Dr. Isaac Solti), Ross McMillan (Matthew Eccles/Voice of Peter Glahn), Nigel Whitmey (Peter Glahn); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ritchard Findlay/Robert Lantos; Zeitgeist Films; 1997/Canada)

“I found it to be a pretentious drag, but its redeeming quality was that it was so novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A love it or hate it stylized pastiche baroque romance/melodrama from experimental cult Winnipeg, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (“Careful“/”Archangel“/”Tales From The Gimli Hospital“). I found it to be a pretentious drag, but its redeeming quality was that it was so novel. The filmmaker goes out of his way to have the dialogue stilted, as he translated the dialogue into an ancient Norwegian tongue only to have it translated back into English. There’s a Kenneth Anger-like surreal colorized look and the fairy-tale setting reminds one of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night Dream.” There’s plenty of highbrow campy humor to match all the film’s rancidness. It also waxes nostalgic for an old-fashioned romantic age, as it aims to explore the depths of human existence through the emotion of love that in the end is tormenting or humiliating. To dig into this hallucinatory fable requires an acquired taste and a strong level of resistance for its tedium. By the conclusion, I felt more sleepy than entertained or enlightened. I’ll take my ice nymphs in a different form, if you please.

As a side note to the production, the body of Peter Glahn is of the disgruntled English actor Nigel Whitney who now prefers to remain uncredited, the voice was post-dubbed by the Canadian Ross McMillan at the insistence of the director.Since filming,Maddin and Whitney are no longer friends. The film begins with Peter Glahn returning home to the dreamlike island of Mandragora where the sun never sets, after four years as a political prisoner.Peter is at first attracted to the frizzy blonde Zephyr (Krige), the sex-crazed wife of a missing fisherman under mysterious circumstances, who is three months pregnant. Peter’s sister Amelia (Duvall) co-owns an ostrich farm with Peter. Her love life is at a standstill because she believes she’s ugly–at least that’s what others call her. Cain Ball (Gorshin) is the wicked handyman who is upset that Amelia shook on selling him the farm but is reneging because she pines for a one-legged Swedish mesmerist named Dr. Isaac Solti (R.H. Thomson), and will stay put as long as she thinks she has a chance of winning him over. The mesmerist exerts mind-control over his live-in fairy princess girlfriend Juliana (Bussières), and plays mind games with Amelia by leading her on and showing her favor but not making any sexual advances.

The brother and sister join Juliana and Solti on a picnic, where Peter falls madly in love with Juliana. But Peter has a temper tantrum because she’s under the hypnotic influence of Solti, and soon takes solace only in his pet dog Aesop. He now even rejects the advances of Zephyr as a substitute. All the characters trot around in fancy costumes, with the ladies in bejeweled ones. To add to the confusion, it is not clear if Juliana is real or a figment of the imagination. We are told her prostitute mother was artificially inseminated with the sperm dug out of the gallows of a hanged man, whom she never met.

The humiliated Amelia returns to the farm rejected and steps on glass placed there by the spiteful handyman, who now harasses her for not keeping her word to sell. He’s awakened from his sleep by finding a huge nail in his forehead, that was driven in by Amelia.

All these romantic notions from the pentagon of love starved characters leads to madness. The filmmaker aims to enrich the art of melodrama by this over stylized wannabe fairy-tale and there very well might be a great story hidden in these weird actions, but I couldn’t find it. I instead found Maddin more as a clever prosaic filmmaker than one who poetically excites the imagination, who has created a highly personalized morbid dreamscape that is not suitable for all tastes.