Friday, 3 February 2012

#26 Canada — Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

Two of my favourite styles of cinema are German Expressionism and early Experimental Cinema. The aesthetics of both are all nearly lost in modern films, but live on in the works of Canada's Guy Maddin.

The style of Brand Upon the Brain seems like a supercharged riff on the films various experimental movements. The camerawork draws upon that of Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera and the presentation style of a silent film with an orchestral score and narrator pays homage to Japanese cinema, where a Benshi would talk over the film. The editing is a beast of its own; the cutting is frantic and loose, which gives the film an absurd and energetic feel.

One of the amazing things about Guy Maddin is that, despite the incredible amounts of style in his works, he never sacrifices a bit of substance. The story presented is a rather interesting one. A man (representing the director) gets a letter from his mother to return to the lighthouse where he was brought up and paint it before she dies. When he gets there, he is assailed by memories of his past, where his draconian mother ran an orphanage in the lighthouse and his sister and him began to discover sexual urges.

Behind the story, Maddin builds up very strong themes on coming-of-age (non-sentimental, thank God), sexual repression, gender, parent-child relationships and more. I found it difficult to decide whether to focus on the dazzling visual style, the absorbing story or the well-explored themes while watching.

Maddin keeps his signature pitch-black absurdist humour right in the foreground in this case. The dark themes and story are lightened up tremendously by the comedic aspects; I watched pretty much all the film with a smile on my face. The humour doesn't feel tacked on at all, it is built into all aspects of the film, from the hilariously sensationalist intertitles to the bizzare logic which underlines the story.

The music and narration in the DVD version are both stellar — although I would love to see the film live. The music consists of a virtuosic orchestral ensemble playing dark, impressive and beautiful lines over key moments. Isabella Rossellini provides the narration in dramatic style, her accented voice modulating to the rhythm of the pictures.

All of the actors do excellent jobs. They theatrically overact all of their parts in the style of original silent films. While none of them are quite Lillian Gish, their emotions are rather absorbing.

Anyone who has enjoyed another Guy Maddin film will be sure to enjoy this. I would go so far as to say its the best of his I've seen. If you have enjoyed any of the films I've talked about, but haven't seen anything of Maddin's films, or saw The Artist and felt it was a bit tame, I urge you to watch this. It's probably my favourite film of the 00s (joint with Nuit Noire (2005)) and I'd count it among my favourites of all-time.

Also recommended from Canada:
Other films by Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Careful)
David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Naked Lunch)
Claude Jutra (My Uncle Antoine)
Francois Girard (The Red Violin)


  1. Brand Upon the Brain! is a truly great film. Guy Maddin is one of few directors whose fast cuts don't drive me nuts, and this film is a good example of that. He isn't simply bouncing around aimlessly, just to make it feel like things are moving along quickly. His fast cuts are more like cinematic sentences, meaningful images shown quickly in series to convey information.

    If you get the Criterion release of Brand Upon the Brain! from the US, you'll be treated to several soundtrack options from the live presentations of the film, each with different narrators, including one by Maddin himself.

    1. I'd love to get so many Criterion DVDs. Unfortunately they're well out of my budget to import to Scotland.