“Tabu” and “Keyhole”: Disyllabic silence…

The iconic drumbeat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” has elevated a number of films to an almost classic status: ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Dirty Dancing,’ and now Miguel Gomes’ ‘Tabu’. A movie with the rhythm of doomed love deep in its bones, Gomes effectively (read: sparingly) deploys his soundtrack to mirror the emotional swells in both the characters and audience alike.

The first half (dubbed “Paradise Lost”), where the companionship among a triumvirate of women (an ageing woman, her black maid and her neighbour) in a modern-day Lisbon apartment complex, is given all the detail of a domestic chamber-piece. Then, the sudden death of one of them prompts an extended flashback (dubbed “Paradise”), only slightly connected (at least prima facie) to the master narrative and set decades earlier in colonial Africa, a ravishingly visualized locale where an illicit love affair is silently witnessed by a spectral, melancholic crocodile.

Much has been made of how ‘Tabu’ frolics with cinematic tropes at will (references to ‘Bande à part,’ ‘Out of Africa’ and even ‘Crocodile Dundee’ are littered here and there, though never overbearingly), but you needn’t be a pedant; its loose themes of sin, regret and history are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film that they never really detract from the prevailing mood of playful romance. Indeed, fluidity is at the very core of Gomes’ aesthetic; ‘Tabu’ has the breathless, non-sequitur momentum of a dream. The second half of this inverted diptych has no diegetic sound, for instance, save for the occasional trace of footsteps, water or clapping hands. It is an especially beguiling example of muted melodrama: time passes, people change, events occur, but the singular moments of transgression linger. It’s a film of real depth, despite its light touch.

Guy Maddin, one the other hand, is certainly not renowned for a genteel approach to his monochrome subject matter. The new film from this Canadian extraordinaire is called ‘Keyhole,’ which succinctly conveys the voyeuristic pleasures that lie therein. Inspired by 1930s gangster flicks, the film re-imagines The Odyssey as a deadbeat dad returning to his home (with his criminal bedfellows in tow) and simultaneously dealing with all his childhood memories. Adopting only a couple of film noir aspects, however, Maddin mines his pet tropes of domestic unease and psychosexuality, featuring vaudevillian skits that include a bicycle-powered torture instrument, a ghost that screams in between drinking a glass of milk, and a funny-if-juvenile recasting of the ‘cyclops’ as a dusty penis that Ullyses’ father-in-law chooses to fellate.

I’m not denying that it’s a rather perverse (what Maddin film isn’t?) and sometimes barely coherent exploration of Freudian chaos, but it certainly doesn’t warrant such negative reviews it has been receiving from the press who consistently fail to appreciate the richly extra-textual nature of all Guy Maddin’s cinema. (If they were bemused by ‘Keyhole,’ his reported next project, involving filming live seances in public places, looks to be stranger still.) Building an implacable series of bold provocations, these 93 minutes felt like an even darker emulation of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s ‘L’Age d’Or’ with its string of surrealist signs and gags. But touching only upon its shimmering idiosyncrasies and fetishistic paraphernalia, though, it is all too easy to miss the surprising amount of poignancy and warmth underlying Ullyses’ madcap quest to undo the damage that time’s arrow inflicts on all of our lives. It’s about the searching sorrow of a wanderer who wishes to “return what was lost” and finally recover from the inchoate anxieties of the past.


2 Comments on ““Tabu” and “Keyhole”: Disyllabic silence…”

  1. Hunter says:

    Thanks for posting these reviews, Josepio! I went online and rented Keyhole before leaving my office at DISH. It was on my Hopper DVR, ready to watch, by the time I walked in my door. I haven’t seen any other Maddin films, so I don’t have much to base Keyhole against. While visually striking, I found little substance to the film. I didn’t get the sense that Maddin knew what he wanted to do with these characters. After reading your review on Tabu, I think I might see if I can find it online as well; I hope for a better experience then that I had with Keyhole.

    • josepio says:

      Maddin’s magnum opus is ‘My Winnipeg,’ a short yet surreal ode to his Canadian hometown. Like much of his cinema, it is a film to experience rather than rationalise. But I can sympathise with your take on ‘Keyhole,’ especially as it doesn’t fully capture the unquiet chaos of memory like his earlier, more personalised black-and-white movies. Sometimes he provokes for the sake of it. Then again, I’d rather endure his occasional misfires than suffer the tiresomely tidy resolutions espoused by the Hollywood behemoth. Also, ‘Tabu’ is certainly worthy of your time – it manages to encapsulate life’s various strata of perception in a disarmingly sweet tale about heartache. The second half, set within the savannahs of a fictional Africa, is truly blissful.

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