Cowards Bend the Knee (Guy Maddin, 2003)
Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee has often been inaccurately described as the hip Canadian director's autobiography. I'd like to think of the film as the director's recurring nightmare etched into film form. It is a phantasmagoric hodgepodge of film styles, techniques, and genres, haphazardly edited into an arguably coherent whole clocking at an hour and some minutes. It is fast paced and feverish in its presentation, yet its stylistic roots owe much to German Expressionist, surrealist and avant-garde film styles. The visuals are somehow randomly placed. The film switches colored tints (green, blue, black and white), cinematographic styles (kaleidoscope, peep-hole) and film speeds (slow motion), in lightning speed whim. The result is like downing a grand size bottle of whisky and waking up without a trace of a hangover. It's pure joy.
The story goes like this: Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) is the star player of the local hockey team. After a bloody headbutt, he suddenly emerges as the stereotypical animalistic male: selfish, irresponsible yet will always find "joy, joy, joy" in meeting someone new. He goes to an abortion clinic within the premises of a beauty parlor-by-day-and-bordello-by-night establishment to have his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stuart) obtain an abortion from Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin). There, Guy sees and falls in love with the parlor-owner's daughter Meta (Melissa Dionisio), who vows to avenge her father's death by killing the murderers: her mom Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), and her paramour Shaky (David Stuart Evans). She devises a plan by transplanting her father's blue-dyed hands into Guy's body and have Guy continue her devious designs.
Cowards Bend the Knee is part noir, part erotica, part fantasy, part sports tale; everything crumpled into one intriguing final product. It is, as previously mentioned, inaccurately-described as autobiographical recounting of the director's supposed darkest secrets. In a courageous decision, he names his main character Guy Maddin, imputing upon the persona of the director the actions of his film's fictional character.
Maddin did not allow his mother Herdis Maddin (who plays Meta's blind grandmother) to watch the film since he admitted that the film's dark-natured portrayal of those who have been involved in the director's own life might be obnoxious even if such may be accurate in a purely subliminal intent. The film is probably what Maddin dreamed of every night, and through the film, the director finally released these nightly demons, courageously unveiling to the whole world his source of madness, which I believe fuels his unique brand of filmmaking
Reportedly, the film was shown in the different festivals using a modern version of the nickelodeon peepshows, which were popular in the early 20th century. Ten of these mechanisms were placed and the festival patrons would likewise be peeping on the little hole, watching the ten chapters of the film unfold before their eyes. More than just a gimmick, the technique presupposes the very personal subject aspect the film: that somehow Maddin doesn't want you to see all these insanity and craziness and sex with clear open and blatantly watching eyes. I saw the film in its DVD version, the chapters are all in chronological order. However, I would love to experience watching it as to how Maddin intended. I'm sure it will make a world of a difference in the cinematic experience. But as seen, Maddin's film is still maddeningly original, discomfortingly personal, tremendously funny, and simply astonishing.