By Jacob Mertens.
The muted wail of sirens fills the air and a languid spotlight scrolls over the wall, penetrating the tattered guts of a rundown Victorian house. Men lie on the floor dead or dying, blood pooling over the floor boards as other men pace over their prostrated bodies. Those alive and well peer out the windows, searching for an unknown enemy, gripping their guns as if they were an extension of their arms. They wear suits and fedoras, their features illuminated in a sharp contrast of shadows and light typical of a classic gangster noir lighting scheme. As the unremitting sirens bleed through the walls, gang leader Ulysses Pick (played by Jason Patric) tempers a growing threat of mutiny as his fellow cohorts question his decision to hole up in an indefensible, ramshackled abode. As Ulysses struggles to retain control over his men, the mise-en-scène reminds the audience of the omnipresent threat of the police who have undoubtedly surrounded the building and now threaten to press in at any moment.
These are the opening moments of Guy Maddin’s newest film, Keyhole, and just as Maddin sets up a tense, genre-specific standoff, the director quickly veers into unexpected madness. In truth, the police never approach the building. Their sirens wail and cry in the background, and their imposing spotlight peers into the building as a voyeur would peer into another’s dream. Meanwhile, Ulysses soon ignores the growing insubordination of his gang, absorbed in a trance that envelops him as he progresses through the haunted halls of a home he had known as a younger man. Ulysses progresses to the upper levels of the house, trying to communicate with the ghosts of his family who now inhabit the floors upstairs, exchanging confused dialogue with his dead lover Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) through the keyholes of different rooms. He tries to convince her to unlock each door, engaging in a ritual of passing a tuft of hair through the small keyhole, and so the film’s suggestion of narrative coherence is replaced with a more abstract sense of emotional progression.
The disparate styles of filmmaking may seem at odds, but Maddin uses the vivid black and white noir inflections to evoke a sense of nostalgia and memory. The filmmaker accentuates this emotional impact by assuring each new room of the house exhibits its own unique identity. This identity does not lie so much in its aesthetic appearance, but in the way its energy affects the “living”, as if the house held the power of hypnotic suggestion. For instance, one room causes a lowly henchman to mount the materialized ghost of a housemaid and ravage her from behind, his motions mechanic as he continues to thrust and convulse in a near loop throughout the film. Another room causes several characters to pile into the lukewarm water of a bathtub, fully clothed, as if seeking a sense of warmth and intimacy.
As viewers continue to watch Keyhole, they get the impression that the house itself has greater life and agency than those who wander its halls, living or dead. This relationship of power between environment and individual can be related to that of the dreamer and the dream, which is ultimately how the viewer must make sense of each scene. It is as if each room holds a specific memory of the past, an unspoken tragedy, and this tragedy manifests itself through the perceptions and actions of those who wander through its halls. The dreamers, primarily Ulysses and his son Denny (David Wontner), must make sense of the miasma that still lurks in each room, but beyond their power of interpretation they are at the mercy of dream itself.
Oddly, the genre plotline of mutiny flares up again in the film, but it cannot sustain a logical causality in the illogical dream world of the haunted house. About halfway through Keyhole, Ulysses’ gang attempts a coup as Ulysses attempts to conquer his existential quest, and they strap their fearless leader to an electric chair and send thriving volts of electricity through his body. Unfortunately their defiance provides little reward, for Ulysses has given himself over to the dream and has gained a modicum of power for his efforts. He emerges from the electric chair unharmed and straps his usurper in, killing him instantly. Once dead, Ulysses dumps the dead body into a pond in the backyard, and so the man quietly leaves the world of the dream as his corpse is consumed by water.
Similarly, viewers gain a foothold in the film not by expecting narrative coherence, but by accepting the dream on its own terms and offering tangential interpretations. The scene of death and tension in the beginning of the film serve only to highlight a sense of peril and to suggest that something is at stake for Ulysses and the other men trapped inside the doomed house. Once the rules become clear, viewers must decide whether Ulysses ascends the floors of the haunted house in a quest to understand his own fate and the fate of his lost family, or merely to bury himself in their memory. Or perhaps, for the more adventurous viewers, they might imagine Ulysses as a ghost himself, recently deceased and come to reckon with his past. Appropriately, the dream offers no clear answers, only a fleeting impression of loneliness and degradation. The rest lies in the hands of those who bear witness to the madness, lost in the tender darkness of the theater.