Outside of the pitch perfect, six minutes of pure cinematic bliss that is Heart of the World, 1992s Careful is very likely Guy Maddin’s best work – at the risk of splitting hairs, it is for me his best feature length film. A culmination of many of the things which keep film-lovers coming back to the Winnipeg maestro’s work: Melodrama heightened to the high of pure comedy, Freud punchdrunk on a cocktail of speedballs and laudanum, flirtations with genre, and the aesthetic of the primordial days of filmmaking at the turn of the 20th century. Although it should be noted that things are done with a subtle modern editing techniques and executed with more-than-a-hint of the grotesque generally not afforded at the time. When you enter the alien world of Tolzbad, leave reality at the door and soak in image and sound boiled down to an essence before being reconstituted as pure fantasy. The surrealism and idiosyncratic personality of Maddin’s work is often compared of David Lynch, but his idiom of resurrecting and reconstructing forgotten sub (-sub-sub) genres puts him in the vein of Quentin Tarantino with hints towards Powell and Pressburger by way of Fritz Lang and Jim Jarmusch. And lest I be branded some sort of leper for suggesting the first name in the previous comparison, I do not mean to imply the rock-star or mainstream appeal of the ‘Pulp’ director, but the idea of a filmmaker that pleasures himself in a video archives for days, weeks, months on end to soak up the juices of cinema before mixing and batching his own, unique and pleasurable concoction. For those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid, we feel you should too…
In the opening minutes we are told in a delightfully ominous voice-over in the tone of a parent scolding their child for their own good, “Careful!” The village of Tolzbad up in the mountains is isolated and remote, and one false step can have a person “serenaded by the winds of their own death plummet.” Boisterous behavior is verboten to the point where even a slight melody sung, or an argument with a sibling out in the open air could have an avalanche crash down and destroy everything. Thus, with everything bottled up inside, the folks of Tolzbad are a seething cauldron ready to boil over. It is a nightmare of repressed 1930s Germany through the veil of a prairie-trapped Canuck.
But first, happy and strange times. Grigorss and Johann live with their mother Zenaida in a blissful state, a dance after dinner, while ignoring the crippled brother up in the attic who has taken to brooding after the tragic death of father (a plummet, naturally). Lessons for the boys at Butler school where they train to serve the local aristocracy have to be seen to be believed, acting as one of the most farcical asides. A spring love blossoms between Johann and the one of the local girls, Klara, which leads to a quick marriage proposal. Yet the puppy-dog feelings awakened for Johann in Klara ignite a darker, incestuous lust for his own mother. Confusion ensues, curiously not so much for Zenaida, but rather Grigorss who has his own feelings for Klara and has been living in the shadow of his golden-boy brother.
Things do not proceed as expected – as they rarely do in a Guy Maddin movie – and this becomes a jumping off point for all the repressions, desires, and dark secrets of the denizens of Tolzbad, both alive, and dead. Once the cat (or in this case, swan) starts dancing on fragile and veneer-thin ice, everything starts to crack and tinkle. This miasma of human frailty and failure is the chief pleasure of Careful. The broad theatrical gestures, the expressionistic sets, the baffling details like a cuckoo clock with a severed bird’s head that pops out on the hour. I particularly like how the title-cards of the piece (and for that matter, the narration) seem to talk to the movie, rather than inform the viewer. Like much of the directors work, the movie is an act of folding in on itself; call it navel gazing if you will, but it is all implied in fondness for this style. The style is the substance. Unlike Maddin’s recent films, which suffer slightly from an abundance of autobiography and overkill self-deprecation – in particular the spectacular failure of experimental haunting fiasco of Keyhole – Careful boldly puts itself out there. Sink or Swim. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, SSSSSHHHHHH!