"This house belonged to Ulysses Pick," says a voice-over, "his wife Hyacinth and their four children. No one has lived in it for years."
Cue dark and stormy night effects, a naked man chained to a bed and wandering spirits from Pick's past, wandering from room to room in a film shot in dreamy (or nightmarish) black and white.
"Keyhole" is the latest excursion into the weird, wonderful, Winnipeg-centric world of director Guy Maddin who has created another unique, visually orgasmic, hard-to-describe experience. Think a Canadian David Lynch directing a Warner Bros. gangster picture while communicating with Fritz Lang at a seance and you're halfway there.
There is a narrative here. Pick (played by Jason Patric) is a cold-hearted gangster, and his odyssey has brought him back home at last, with a bound-and-gagged woman slung over his shoulder. "Home, Ulysses," the voice adds. "You are home."
But like Maddin's fine 2003 film "The Saddest Music in the World," the narrative mostly gives way to incomprehension, and that's a good thing, although it means there should really be a prefilm disclaimer reading "cinephiles only."
"Our house is a strange labyrinth," says the voice, a place populated by ghosts from Pick's past, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), several of their sons (one yells "Yahtzee!" at one point -- later adding, "Double Yahtzee!"), and that chained, naked man, Hyacinth's father, seemingly watching it all.
With violent gun fights and electric chairs, this could be considered Maddin's action film or his horror yarn. It's also his personalized adaptation of Homer's "Odyssey," but as the director put it in the film's press notes, it "is a domestic Odyssey across carpets and floor tiles instead of across the sea."
Like most of his work, "Keyhole" was shot in Winnipeg. Maddin's quasi-documentary "My Winnipeg" was one of the finest films of 2007, a surreal blend of real and fake found footage all centered around the city in which he was born.
"Keyhole" is a very different, admittedly less satisfying experience than that modern classic, with beautifully evocative dialogue ("How did you get in?" "I had an extra key." "Sorrow must linger." "You can't electrocute a man twice.") and a visual style that should prove unequaled in 2012.
It's no exaggeration to say that every shot could be a gloriously atmospheric still photo. The film, which premiered at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, serves as a fitting homage to the cinema of the 1930s, albeit with frontal nudity.
And what a rush to see Patric, the former star of "Speed 2: Cruise Control," in such a milieu. The always endearing Rossellini is a Maddin vet, and Udo Kier has pretty much made a career out of appearing in the cinema of the absurd (here, he has a nice monologue on his hatred for wasps), but for Patric, this represents an exhilarating, over-the-top departure.
Exhilarating, that is, if you can enjoy a film that begins with a character announcing, "Those of you have been killed, stand facing the wall. Those of you who are alive, face me." The "dead" rise, of course, and take their proper position.
How very Guy Maddin, and how breathtakingly strange.
"Keyhole" has limited area showings starting today at Screens (5445 Transit Road, Clarence; 688-4933) and the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst; 837-0376). This is a rare chance to see the latest film from one of modern cinema's true visionaries.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier
DIRECTOR: Guy Maddin
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
RATING: R for graphic nudity, sexuality, violent content and some language.
THE LOWDOWN: A gangster named Ulysses Pick arrives home to a house haunted with memories and the ghosts of his past.