In Brand Upon the Brain! — the latest from Canadian director Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World) — orphans with holes in their heads are combined with a teenage lesbian romance and narration from Isabella Rossellini. The silent black-and-white film is rooted in the fantastical tradition of early French cinema, and although it may not sound particularly accessible, it is proving to be the best-received work of Maddin’s 32-film career (including shorts).
Maddin, who wrote the film with longtime collaborator George Toles, devised the project as a unique theatrical experience with live accompaniment. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September and has since screened in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other locations along with a touring 11-piece orchestra, five Foley artists (who create the sound effects), and even a singer billed as a castrato. Each screening has also featured a celebrity narrator, such as Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover and Isabella Rossellini.
More recently, a version of the film with a married soundtrack — that is, with recorded narration, score and sound effects — opened in limited markets in June and will see wider release this month and next. Rossellini provides the narration on this rendering, her unusual voice and histrionic delivery perfectly suited to guiding the viewer along the meandering path of this absurdist tale.
At the beginning of the film, a man who happens to be named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs plays the adult Guy; Sullivan Brown plays the younger Guy) returns to the secluded island where he grew up after his dying mother summons him to apply two coats of fresh paint to the family lighthouse. It is the site of the orphanage run by his parents, and soon he is awash in memories of his strange upbringing there.
As a young boy, Guy and his older sister, Sis (Maya Lawson), eke out what childhood pleasures they can under their mother’s (Gretchen Krich) puritanical watch. From atop her lighthouse, Mother sweeps the island with a giant telescope to keep an eye on her charges, roaring garbled orders at them over the "aerophone" — their father’s invention, said to be powered by the love between the speaker and the listener.
Meanwhile, Father (Todd Moore) toils away at all hours in his basement laboratory, concocting a "strange nectar" to restore Mother’s youth. Mother is as freakily obsessed with reversing the aging process as she is with her children’s budding sexuality, and she keeps a cradle in her room in heady anticipation of the day she returns to infancy.
After people begin finding mysterious head wounds on the children they adopt from the orphanage, teen detective Wendy (Katherine E. Scharhon) arrives on the island to secretly investigate. She finds herself falling for Sis, so she dashes off and reappears in drag as her brother Chance, explaining that Wendy was abruptly called away. And thus begin the romantic escapades that lend the film most of its humor and heart.
Wendy’s departure saddens Guy, but his crush on her soon morphs into a "boy crush" on her alluring and oddly familiar "brother." Sis is also smitten with Chance, and the two girls begin a furtive, pubescent romance that continues even after Sis discovers that the dashing lad is actually Wendy in disguise.
Besides passing as a boy, Wendy/Chance devises creative means for safely pursuing Sis. For instance, the young detective comes up with the idea of "the undressing gloves": only the wearer is allowed the honor of disrobing another and remains protected from being similarly exposed. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before saucy Sis steals them.
The film does contain nudity, but not of a seedy sort; their adolescent affair is portrayed as it appears to Guy, a young boy who is still as intrigued as he is confused by such matters.
Brand! is a silent film in the sense that we hear none of the characters speak, but it is rich with sound and playful with language. The orchestral score is fervent, almost frenetic. Menacing strings maintain a hypnotic rhythm, and cymbals crash to heighten the more melodramatic moments.
The action is described in sparing but giddy bursts from the narrator as well as intertitles that appear on-screen: "Young Guy never suspects the secret genders of others!" and "What’s a suicide attempt without a wedding?" for instance. Both narrator and titles go heavy on the exclamation points, making it feel as if the account of events we are afforded comes from sneaking a glimpse at a teenage girl’s diary.
And on some level, that isn’t too far from the truth. There is something girlish about Maddin’s exuberant and conspiratorial style. It’s what lends his work a certain charm, even as it raises questions about this film’s quasi-autobiographical elements. We get the feeling that he is confessing something to us, something he knows will astonish and grip us. He relishes the power of divulging precious secrets.