Guy Maddin's 'Cowards Bend the Knee' Review.
Dismemberment, sex, incest, death, back-alley abortions; Guy Maddin’s underground fever dream captures the core of transgressive cinema. Cowards Bend the Knee ruptures traditional avant-garde with an hallucinatory, hypnotic edge that cuts through the psychoanalytical cinema of Deren, and the absurdist beauty of Lynch. Maddin’s cinema is a homage to the spiritual opera of experimental film and the manic anguish of German Expressionism.
Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) is a hockey player for the Winnipeg Maroons who is led through a series of macabre events, after taking his girlfriend for an illegal abortion in the back room of a hairdressing salon. We follow Guy as his existential journey skates through the clutches of a menacing femme fatale, with tales of murder, vengeance, and severed, blue hands.
Maddin transcends the elements of transitional cinema with a composition that meanders through the Gothic artistry of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the aesthetic madness of Lynch’s Eraserhead. It is difficult to infer the time and space of Cowards Bend the Knee, it seems equally as reminiscent of the flamboyance of The Great Depression as it does the hedonism of The Swinging Sixties. But, it seems that perhaps Maddin’s Winnipeg exists on more of a subconscious level than a conscious one. The score by Ela Orleans elevates the surrealist tone of Maddin’s feature providing Cowards Bend the Knee with a balanced blend of dream-like distortion and piercing, metaphysical misery. But while Maddin’s feature flows through ominous waters the elements of absurdist, dark, and blue comedy further test the boundaries of Underground Cinema - with a refined and audacious lens.
Cowards Bend the Knee adopts a vast digest of cinematic movements, and where many films become jarring with sensory overload, Maddin creates a sonority of cinematic historicism while retaining his own voice. Maddin’s kaleidoscopic cinema is one that seems to achieve the perfect equilibrium of deviance and humanity. It is a film that revels in its unorthodoxy, much like Lynch the excellence resides within its interpretative model; one that could be analysed from the texts of Sartre’s Existentialism to Freudian theory.
Unlike many experimental features, Maddin develops a very delicate and very real character study that evolves starkly through the frenzied frames of Maddin’s nightmarish landscape. It is clear that Maddin’s characterisation is drawn from aspects of himself, the protagonist sharing his name gives the film an emotive authenticity, with a mode of self-reflection set to exclaim that Maddin deeply resonates with the roots of surrealist expression: crafting the brushstrokes of his own self-portrait - with Darcy Fehr’s performance capturing the dyad of pain and liberation with profound naturalism. In some ways, the character of Guy Maddin gives more emphasis to the post-war feel of Maddin’s feature - the fantasy elements of the character resonate with John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Fisher: a man escaping into fantasy to avoid the realities of the world that will ultimately free him.
Cowards Bend the Knee is an intriguing experimental feature, one that manages to harmonise the musicality of existential despair; with wit and vibrancy. Maddin incorporates a mash-up of surrealist mystery, underground transgression and Aristotelian Poetics. It is a film that is impossible to simplify, but one of the most unique masterpieces from the Underground Movement. It is an abstraction, but one that welcomes the spectator to experience its absurdism with a light hearted gaze.
‘Steph’s Words on Cinema’ is a newsletter which focuses on reviewing independent, experimental and art-house films. It is free so please do subscribe and share. I also write for Take One Cinema, Eye For Film and my twitter handle is @stephpbrown_