Brand Upon the Brain

It’s over-simplifying, but there’s no way around it: Winnipeg surrealist Guy Maddin works the same general territory as David Lynch. But while Lynch is still, in his unique way, a creature of Hollywood, Maddin has remained a Manitoba miniaturist whose films are both overtly psychological and proudly melodramatic. Oddly enough, Maddin’s movies are often more accessible than Lynch’s – at least partly because the filmmaker is an unabashed fan of the primal storytelling style of silent movies. “Brand Upon the Brain” builds upon the director’s fandom by being Maddin’s second actual silent film, and was originally presented as a theatrical event with a live orchestra, sound effects artists, and narrators. This typically lavish Criterion DVD includes both studio recordings and crisp live audio tracks with seven different narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (“Blue Velvet”), professional weirdo Crispin Glover, and the great nonagenarian character actor Eli Wallach (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”).

The movie itself combines elaborate fantasy and confessional filmmaking, at least on the level of metaphor – the main character is named “Guy Maddin” and the director has described the film as “97% true.” It’s not a drag, though – there’s a pleasing and funny jumble of genre elements ranging from teen detective to grand guignol horror, some nudity (both the sexy kind and the not so sexy kind, in this case involving a male corpse) and Ms. Rossellini’s narration is literally a scream. Featuring a deliberately herky-jerky editorial approach (a new wrinkle for Maddin that I’m not wild about), “Brand Upon the Brain” works for the most part, but for me this doesn’t quite add up to Class A insanity. I would have happier with a bit more melodrama and a bit less psychosexual metaphor.

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