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Cowards Bend the Knee (2004) - Im not even going to try to explain the plot.

"Cowards Bend the Knee" (2004) - I'm not even going to try to explain the plot.

Style is a wonderful thing, especially when you come across one that you can recognize as belonging to a particular director. What are movies by Federico Fellini, Preston Sturges, or Stanley Kubrick without the trademark styles of their directors?

But some directors, even the best, can go overboard with and depend too much on their style (think Tim Burton’s lesser films). Maybe I take Guy Maddin way too seriously, but “Cowards Bend the Knee” is nothing more than an overly silly exercise in style.

Surrealism as an ideal fascinates me, but I believe that some artists tend to use the genre as an excuse to make incomprehensible art. What is an audience supposed to understand from such a twisted storyline?

Since I can’t seem to summarize it, here’s J. Hoberman’s explanation, from his review in the “Village Voice”:

A disorienting welter of introductions includes the Maroons’ star player Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), his pregnant girlfriend, Veronica (Amy Stewart), the sinister team physician Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin), and the hard-faced blonde Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), who manages the phantasmagorical Night Clinic—”Beauty salon by day, bordello by night”—where Veronica is taken after the Maroon victory to get her abortion.

The procedure, which Dr. Fusi performs in a sort of corset with a cigarette holder clenched jauntily between his teeth, has nearly as many spectators as the hockey game. Midway through, Maddin cravenly dumps Veronica to pursue Liliom’s daughter Meta (Melissa Dionisio), who wanders in on the operation. The provocative vixen, crouching topless on a pile of hockey gloves, refuses to let Guy touch her until he agrees to avenge her father who, she explains, has been murdered by her mother and her mother’s lover, Guy’s teammate Shaky (David Stuart Evans).

The third episode isn’t even over yet. By the time we reach the fourth, entitled “Meta’s Bedroom,” we learn that this Manitoba Electra keeps her dead father’s hands in a jar; she wants Guy to demonstrate his love for her by amputating his mitts and grafting on her dad’s (as if that wouldn’t implicate poor Guy in the incest taboo). To complicate this turgid psychosexual morass, the hero’s father, Maddin Sr. (Victor Cowie), the radio-announcing “Voice of the Maroons,” is in love with Veronica—or, rather, Veronica’s ghost—while the Maroons themselves are engaged in a match with the Soviet hockey team. The surplus of mothers includes the real-life Maddin’s own, who plays Veronica’s grandmother.

Isn’t this a bit complicated for a 64-minute running time? I can imagine each 10-minute chapter working on its own as an experimental exercise in style and absurdity: the movie was presented in this way in a gallery at both International Film Festival Rotterdam and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. For a feature-length film, however, the madness is trying on the audience’s patience.\

Any fan of Maddin’s work should find something to love, but others should rent one of his more accessible works. [Note to self: Are any of Maddin’s movies really “accessible”?]

Rating: ** out of ****


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