Dir: Guy Maddin, 1992. Starring: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Brent Neale. Cult.

Apparently there is something timeless about the Oedipus complex, as well as the fear of a catastrophic death. We play with the idea of the world coming to an end and cities crumbling to ruin in almost every action or sci-fi film. The thrill is exhausted, and the same is true of the over-saturated use of Freud. However, with Guy Maddin's Careful I venture to say that one may view a radiant and technically stunning movie about fear itself. The borders we create with other human beings, both relatives and strangers, are shifted in a way that is cult-like, similar to the backwards villages that were the foundation of our society. To add to the old feeling of a place filled with religious fanatics is a looming fear that is as outrageous as it is interesting.

In the town of Tolzbad, we find a group of people who must must never be careless or loud in their activities. In the past, the sound of an animal or a sneeze could potentially cause an avalanche from the mountains nearby. The fear of this tragic death has lead to several procedures and guidelines that should prevent it from ever happening again. Animals have had their vocal cords cut; children are gagged while playing until they are old enough to understand the consequences of their squeals; windows are covered with sheepskin, and all instruments are muffled. On top of the sound restraints are general warnings; never hold a baby by a pin, don't climb the mountains without proper gear, etc. The unison of superstition and nervousness provided more of an insight to a time long gone than the use of technicolor (or hand tinting?) throughout the film, or the silent-era design.

Following a widow (Gosia Dobrowolska) and her two sons, the movie begins by focusing on her eldest son, Johann (Brent Neale). His courtship with Klara (Sarah Neville) is fairly childlike as even a complement to her features is seen as out of line, if not perverse. Hidden away in the family attic is his disabled brother, Franz, who is visited by the ghost of their blind father. Johann seems to be the only person in his family who shows his hermit/rejected brother any compassion, and the ghost has come to ask Franz for help. Johann's virginity has become a sort of curse as his repressed desires fall on the lap of his beautiful and lonely mother. His erotic dreams and waking fantasies have led to the decline of his manners and focus, and everyone seems disturbed by his new-found angst. His father's ghost has come back to try and warn against the dangers of his lust, using the disabled and mute brother as a mediator. His pleas are left hanging as Johann loses his grip and concocts a love potion that he intends to serve his mother. When he does give her the tainted refreshment, he helps himself to her bosom. The guilt leads him to suicide, and Klara's hand is then sought after by his jealous brother, Grigorss (Kyle McCulloch).

A brother taking over a courtship or marrying his dead brother's gal was always a custom that seemed like a recipe for disaster. For Grigorss, life soon becomes unbearable when secrets from his mother's past come to the surface. He's also failed to notice that Klara's love for her father goes beyond filial affection, and that her bitterness is not from Johann's death, but rather spite for her younger sister. Still, he blindly forges ahead and attempts to win her heart. But underneath her facade is a scheming will. With Grigorss in a delicate state of confusion and grief, Klara decides to get his help tying up loose and violent ends.

Careful has been compared to several silent-era films, and rightfully so. The range of color and focus on doomed townspeople reminded me of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The foreign (perhaps German) cast of sharp and brutal characters reminded me of a German Expressionist film, without the style and form of them. Many reference Melies, and strangely several films starring Clara Bow, but I think the character Klara is more cause for the connection than the film itself. The movie does have a small range of dialogue, with several narration cards inserted for a little exposition. The photography was mesmerizing, though a bit sloppy, and it is that form that makes it more of a cult film. People seem to be under the impression that Maddin was seriously trying to make a silent film in the '90s. While I can't be certain, based off of his influences, I'd argue that he directed a satire of silent films. The dry and somewhat hard to find comedy within the dialogue was often a reference to a superstition. You follow a conversation, such as the one Grigorss has with his new boss, and all of a sudden the question, “Do you have regular bowel movements?” is in the air. Remarks such as these, paired with the pretty and yet nightmarish imagery, are what satisfy Maddin's fans. You are unprepared for just about every action or utterance, and this sparks a rewarding subjective experience with his work. The problem is, silent films have a strict formula or grammar, if you will. If you know what that is, you know what to expect with them, minus a few technical differences. Supposing Careful was taken literally by its overall audience, it would explain the love/hate relationship with it. I think if you come into it expecting satire, you'll have a greater understanding of it. No one but the director knows what was intended, but I recommend that sort of mindset going in. I guarantee that will make it more pleasurable.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 18, 2011 7:00pm
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