“I’m returning what was lost”
Like the crackled overlay of two radio stations playing from a dial meticulously tuned equidistantly between them, Guy Maddin‘s haunting Keyhole concurrently projects the tenuous holds of reality, dream, and afterlife onto its fixed environment inside the Picks’ residence. Apparently the return of the household’s patriarch after an extended absence, we watch as the shadows, walls, and objects within stir up ingrained memories he had otherwise forgotten. But as this stranger shakes the cloud of erased time, the tale shifts to take the form of a young man’s fractured mind attempting to cope with being the lone survivor of a tragic family. No matter the subject, however, while we see the inhabitants coming and going either due to their own free will or God’s, the establishment that protected and embraced them never forgets a single moment.
Co-written by George Toles, Maddin’s original intent was to try his hand at adapting Gaston Bachelard‘s 1958 book The Poetics of Space. A tome speaking on the psychological aspects of domestic space, he discovered turning its musing into a movie would be as futile as doing so to the Dictionary since no real narrative existed. So, after pushing aside his first choice for story inspiration, the Canadian auteur settled on Homer‘s Odyssey and its quest to return home. What better tool to use than a man’s journey back to forgotten normalcy after excising himself to explain the emotional powers of possessions and family within the construct of domesticity? With a wife long left alone on her marital bed as suitors attempt to take her hand, the fight becomes finding the strength to battle through the doors of memory, regret, and love.
Shot in a muted black and white with a soft vignette around the frame, Ulysses’ (Jason Patric) return isn’t necessarily a happy affair. A gangster who sent his men ahead to infiltrate the house imprisoning his soul, his arrival with a young, soaking wet woman named Denny (Brooke Palsson) is just one of the strange occurrences to come to light at the start. The gunfire that allowed Big Ed (Daniel Enright) and crew to hole up in the living room amongst a plethora of tchotchkes and ghosts exposes its artifice. Those shot dead are made to get up and face the wall before being sent away and the clatter of police outside fades from a powerful collage of quickly cut malicious men to sound effects matched to exterior lights. Nothing is real, yet the aftermath is. These people may have already been dead or perhaps never existed at all.
A quote on happiness being allowed to come and go as it pleases once residents leave a house becomes an appropriate remark when the horrors of violence, death, and revenge rear their ugly heads. Maddin and Toles go to great pains to show it’s sorrow that lingers through the ages in the guise of dusty artifacts and suffering shadows of the men and women who once lived carefree; the ghosts existing in the specks and particles flying through rays of light shining in. Each object—whether a stuffed wolverine named Crispy or a pocketknife or a bowl created by a son’s hands—holds time, both good and bad. And while we may wish to remember the love or passion within each, any glimpse at joy quickly disappears once our ultimate loss rises up to replace it.
Thus, while Ulysses’ traverses his home one room at a time, those he’s brought eventually devolve into the selfish monsters they truly are. His trusty second in command Heatly (Theodoros Zegeye-Gebrehiwot) is introduced with a gunshot wound, the cause perhaps not so arbitrary as initially thought; Ogilbe (Kevin McDonald) and Big Ed become crazed with lust and lose themselves into the dark depths of the home’s recesses; and his wife’s father Camille (Louis Negin) is manifested as both a chained old man unable to be released from the family’s minds as well as a Calypso trapping each while a cancer rips them apart. One lackey, Belview (Claude Dorge) is tasked with putting things back together, but as Ulysses drags Denny along with the bound and gagged Manners (David Wontner), we find the past irrevocably shattered.
An obtuse look inside captured memory, Keyhole‘s aesthetic lives within a realm of horror and tragedy while its tone flitters through comedy’s campier spectrum end. I found myself laughing at Patric in over-the-top instances and I believe McDonald is incapable of not eliciting a chuckle courtesy of his goofily wry smile. Contraptions like a rotary phone/pneumatic tube system for sending messages throughout the house come in with homemade electric chairs mimicking the one we infer took the lives of a few of the criminals resting on the Pick’s furniture. A history is given in a surreally abstract way as we watch the faded imprints through Ulysses’ eyes while he wades through tragedy to protect his love Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) from archrival Chang (Johnny Chang). That release, however, may only bring more pain as death’s reality is left naked beneath.
Characters like a daughter’s ghost (Tattiawna Jones‘ Lota), the doctor who sealed each member’s fate (Udo Kier‘s Dr. Lemke), and an unsubtitled Frenchwoman (Olivia Rameau‘s Rochelle) also come and go, but like Homer’s Odyssey, the son must play an integral role. Lost in a world of the damned, he is the lone survivor living a never-ending nightmare. A drowned girl struggling to live with water in her lungs, a trapped mother locked away behind the closed doors of time, and a father discovering his pain was self-inflicted, each moves perpetually along a fixed path in death. The boy left behind must slog through them without escape—their souls forever embedded in the dark. And while this truth’s convolution and difficulty in comprehension causes the film to be an acquired taste, one cannot deny the artistry or the brilliance of its creator fearlessly engulfing us inside his contemporary myth.
 Jason Patric in Guy Maddin’s “Keyhole”
 Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier in Guy Maddin’s “Keyhole”
 Brooke Palsson and David Wontner in Guy Maddin’s “Keyhole”
courtesy of Monterey Media Inc