`Archangel': Exploring The Wider Possibilities

XXX 1/2 "Archangel," with Kyle McCulloch. Directed by Guy Maddin, from a script by Maddin and George Toles. Neptune Theater, Monday and Tuesday. No rating. Includes nudity. --------------------------------------------------------------- "The breath of a mare with foal on your little baby would clear up that whooping cough."

Huh, what?

There's no one quite like Manitoban filmmaker Guy Maddin. His first feature film, "Tales From the Gimli Hospital," made it clear that the cinematic avant-garde was alive and well on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. With its silent-era visual sensibility and its absurdist humor (salmon-mousse shampoos, synchronized-swimming dream-visions), "Gimli Hospital" had the makings of a cult hit, even if its shaky pacing and low budget sometimes got in the way.

With "Archangel," the pacing is tighter and Maddin's addled vision is richer, in part because it's better financed. Filmed in a silvery black-and-white and erratically spiced with dubbed dialogue and sound effects, "Archangel" tells the bizarre tale of one-legged Canadian soldier, Lt. John Boles (Kyle McCulloch), who is trying to scatter the ashes of his dead girlfriend, Iris, over the White Sea during World War I.

Once in Archangel - "a crystalline city of spires and onion-domes," as the press kit describes it - Boles is sidetracked by Russian nurse Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who so closely resembles Iris that Boles assumes she is Iris. Also on hand are Boles' landlady Danchuk (Sarah Neville), her cowardly husband Jannings (Michael Gottli), and Veronkha's husband Philbin (Ari Cohen), who suffers from mustard-gas-induced amnesia, as do all the characters to varying extents.

Battle scenes, treasure maps and memories of honeymoons in Murmansk all figure in Maddin's surreal brew. As Boles traces and retraces his steps through the wartime carnage - offering arcane medical advice along the way - a narrator in voiceover comments that "forgetfulness was the very tenor of his existence."

With forgetfulness, mistaken identities become exchanged identities and funerary urns become wine jars. Throw in a sausage-disembowelment and some murmured advice that "little piles of darkness can serve as road signs for the wayward traveler," and you have a uniquely mesmerizing journey from Maddin's given historical starting point to his mind's deepest dream-recesses.

Like Fellini or Greenaway, Maddin has a visual style that's immediately recognizable as his own. His cannibalization of silent-era and 1930s screen artifice is as humorous as it is lyrical. The layered sound - sometimes muffled, sometimes startlingly clear - is rarely in sync with what's going on onscreen, functioning instead as a distancing device that makes you focus on the flickering images all the more closely.

Although it's difficult to talk of performances in the conventional sense, Maddin's gallant cast enters gamely into the spirit of his film. Acting as his own cinematographer, Maddin endows their words and gestures with the same off-kilter poetry that he brings to his production design (which he collaborated on with Dennis Smith).

"Archangel," defying every contemporary cinema convention as it does, won't be to everyone's taste. But for those interested in the wilder possibilities of what film can do, it's an absolute must. Like Boles' passion for Iris, Maddin's determinedly archaic film sensibility amounts to "a wild heedless love bordering on heroism."