This review comes with a disclaimer: I am not a “film lover.”
Just kidding, put down the pitchforks—of course I love film. But I grew out of being a film snob long ago, and I am just as happy being called a “movie buff.” I believe that entertainment is not a bad word: I love all genres of film, I don’t have lofty opinions about camera angles and I’ve only ever used the word vision ironically. I’m also constantly wary of the “Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome” in films—where something is presented in such a pretentious way that “film lovers” are obligated to like it.
It is easy to look at Guy Maddin’s grainy black-and-white film Archangel (1991), which is playing this weekend at PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema, and dismiss it as such a film. But while it may ultimately have a message, Archangel also depend on the audience’s ability to give up trying to understand it. And that’s a compliment.
Maddin, an experimental Canadian filmmaker who also directed Keyhole (2011), is often compared to David Lynch, though his work may be even more distinct. It draws on the look and feel of early silent movies to evoke a certain atmosphere. Archangel is his second feature, and though the film is steeped in surrealism, it is actually based on a little-known piece of history.
At the end of World War I and the height of the Bolshevik revolution, soldiers from several different countries, including Britain, America, France and Canada, were stationed at the remote Arctic outpost of Archangel, in Russia.
Unaware that the war had ended, the soldiers there continued fighting.
The hero of the film is a Canadian soldier named John Boles (Kyle McCulloch), a one-legged man who inexplicably begins the story clutching the ashes of his dead lover, Iris. He stays with a local family in Archangel and meets Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who looks exactly like Iris, and who is busy avoiding her supposed husband Philbin (Ari Cohen), a philandering amnesiac soldier who constantly believes it is their wedding night. Indeed, amnesia seems to affect everyone in Archangel, and the loss of identity and reality is a persistent theme.
If this sounds like a lyrical fairy tale, beware—the film is also, at times, a grotesque satire of war and the wartime mentality. That may sound heavy-handed, but it is presented in such a morbidly humorous way that you can’t help but admire the originality.
Everyone is delirious and happy to be fighting and dying for no reason—ideas like love, country and bravery become the film’s inside jokes. Somewhat shocking scenes—the beating of the young boy Geza (David Falkenburg) in Doles’ adopted family, or what happens to Geza’s “coward” father—are presented with a macabre sense of tongue-in-cheek.
The visuals are definitely striking, considering what a small film it really is. Maddin uses every available technique to convey the dreamlike atmosphere of the story: From the shadows of distorted fields to the disembodied voices of the actors, Maddin proves that, even without the benefit of modern technology, the smallest choice can tell a story just as effectively (or more so) than a film with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it. It’s also a credit to the cleverness of Maddin’s script that, even among the oddities of this world, there is a clear sense of each character’s personality—if not their motivations.
Archangel is not a film trying to beat you over the head with its own intelligence—it’s way too weird for that. Like Maddin’s work in general, it may be divisive, and the arguments over whether it’s brilliant or ridiculous are enough to recommend it. There’s so much to admire, whether or not you enjoy the film—and I still haven’t decided whether I did. But the fact that it was made with virtually no money, using homemade props, yet still boasts finely drawn characters and an unmistakable mood, is quite impressive. Still, as much as I want to say otherwise, Archangel often falls into the category of films you admire more than like.
Though I might be wary of pretentiousness in film, I also believe that the failure of an original film is a lot better than the success of a cookie-cutter one. And by all accounts, Archangel is no failure. Maddin has created and produced his own work since the late ’80s, including documentaries and shorts. His most recent short film is part of an interactive exhibit at the art gallery in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, where he has a passionate following to this day.
Maddin’s early work in Archangel is a great gateway to the oeuvre of a filmmaker who might inspire you. I’m not sure that he inspires me, but I can’t help but respect him. He does have a vision, after all.