The character at the center of Brand Upon the Brain! is called Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs). Brooding, handsomeish, and peculiar, he’s a splendid sort of movie-self, a concoction at once compelling and perverse. His multiple possibilities are exactly right: ruined and inspired by his mother, haunted by his father, this Guy is generic and singular, satirical and sincere.
Subtitled “Remembrance in 12 Chapters,” Maddin’s excellent movie tracks something like Guy’s search for his youthful memories, though you might just as easily describe his effort as a last-ditch repression. Called by his ailing mother to come paint the lighthouse that dominates the island where he grew up, Guy — deemed a “housepainter” by the film’s narrator — arrives with brushes, cans, and a slew of mixed emotions, determined to apply two coats at least, and urged by a voice that might be in his head to “cover it up.”
Established by iris shots and skewed close-up angles on Guy’s grim expression, this introduction only seems bizarre. In fact, it doesn’t begin to suggest just how strange and mesmerizing Brand will turn, as Guy’s revisitation of his past leads directly to an extended flashback, wherein young Guy (Sullivan Brown), Sis (Maya Lawson), and their horrendously twitchy, damaged and damaging parents (Gretchen Krich and Tom Moore) live in the orphanage-at-the-lighthouse that constitutes the family business.
Further refining Maddin’s signature aesthetic (black-and-white old-timey imagery, intertitles, and performances comprised of broad gestures, exultations and lamentations, all recalling an era irrecoverable), this film also features architecture that serves thematic purpose. The lighthouse makes visible Mother’s predatory surveillance methods, as she virtually rides inside the light like a cockpit, rattling and revolving, her beam literally picking out her children’s not-so-secret and hardly surprising activities (“You look like you just got out of the bed of a seducer,” she accuses Sis, whose hair is ever mussed by Mother’s standards). The lighthouse also provides an ooky spiral staircase for the orphans to traipse up and down (“Little feet in the night,” reads an intertitle, as feet clink on the metal steps), plus a deeply shadowed, claustrophobic laboratory where Father works feverishly night and day.
It’s clear from the start that Father’s experiments are insidiously connected to the “very suspicious holes” in the backs of the children’s heads, though the unraveling of this mystery will take up the rest of the film. It will also require help from fabulous teen detective Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon). Introduced as “half of The Lightbulb Kids,” famous from a series of children’s novels, Wendy not only wins Guy’s heart (he is instantly “smitten”), but also promptly devises to solve the case of the Case of the Face in the Lighthouse by disguising herself as her twin brother Chance, who becomes the object of Sis’ undying and increasingly sensual affection.
The course of the siblings’ lusty loves is periodically interrupted by parental niggling: Sis is regularly called back to Father’s lab, from which she emerges in a daze, Guy flinches whenever his mother beckons, and pulls back from her smothering caresses (not to mention the array of kisses she delivers to “Mother’s little tushy”). Looking to the glamorous teen detective for emancipatory answers, the generically named Guy and Sis imagine becoming individuals even as they resist the attending responsibilities. The film stages their parallel evolutions in segments, each chapter titled to reflect fierce yearnings and/or redolent metaphors (“A Morning Heap of Flesh,” “A Secret Grove”), filtered through Guy’s self-protecting reminiscence. Just what he needs to know and what he needs to keep repressed in order to ensure his eventual flight from the island remains quite un-sorted out, the film instead swirling with possibilities.
Of a piece with Maddin’s previous, similarly themed and structured films, Brand is also new and surprising. For all its overheated plotting, gorgeous gestures, and occasionally goofy nostalgia, the film is also tender and appreciative — of the past that haunts it, of the awkward contraptions that offer up personal pasts for collective consumption (that is, movies, stories, and wholly irrational mythologies). Pulsing with sinister shadows, gender confusions, and all manner of dark or maybe just familiar desires, Brand indicts parents who live through their children and children who can’t forgive their parents — in other words, just about everyone. Designed to screen with a live orchestra and narrator in theaters, the film crosses borders between performance and experience, truth and fiction, its use of conventions and stereotypes simultaneously hoary and fresh.
The onus of family bears down hard on young, remembered Guy as well as his present-time incarnation. Neither can quite separate out the erotic charms of sister, mother, and teen detective, and both are swept up in the temptations of communication — rapturous and fantastic (as in the case of Father’s “invention,” the “aerophone,” which allows lovers to communicate across distances via their passions, and most often used here by Mother to call her children). Communicating both the sad loss and relentless lingering of childhood, the film’s impressionistic effects are dazzling, specific and pervasive. With holes in their heads and survivalist vitality in their hearts, the children resist and also succumb.
As Guy comes to see Sis as a monstrous repetition of his mother and Wendy as “just another phantom,” he remains flummoxed by that first female, Mother, her wild riding in the lighthouse perpetual in his mind, as is her pathological, desperate search for eternal youth. Repeatedly and disturbingly, she takes doses of the “nectar” extracted from the children’s brains, emerging from treatments transformed, smooth-skinned and frighteningly lovely, until, repeatedly, she is afflicted with the “rage” that turns her old again, born of her desire to watch and control her children’s actions.
Jealous of his older sister’s various and seeming freedoms, he also helps her to “tryst” with Chance, not quite understanding his own intense attractions to both Wendy and Chance. In Guy — observed by his mother and observing his sister — the problems of sex and gender are brilliantly alive and ever confusing. Stymied and furious, Guy is also a very good boy, so “eager to please” he’s unable at last to forget or understand, to stay or go.