Film-Forward Review: [COWARDS BEND THE KNEE]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

The alluring Meta (Melissa Dionisio)
Photo: Zeitgeist

Directed, Written & Director of Photography by: Guy Maddin.
Produced by: Philip Monk.
Edited by: John Gurdebeke.
Released by: Zeitgeist Films.
Country of Origin: Canada. 64 min. Not Rated.
With: Darcy Fehr, Melissa Dionisio, Amy Stewart & Louis Negin.
DVD Features: Commentary by Guy Maddin. "Love-Chaunt Workbooks" four short-film blueprints from a lost Maddin feature, plus audition reels. Behind-the-scenes look at Maddin's upcoming The Brand upon the Brain!. Photo archive. Artistic statement. Character sketches. Missing chapter script. "A Note on Hands" essay.

It's hard to top Cowards Bend the Knee's conceit: All the action takes place within a dab of sperm under a microscope. In fact, the film's first chapter is "The Sperm Players," where spermatozoa play hockey. One of the star players is Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr, a dead ringer for a ‘20s matinee idol). After winning a game, he takes his pregnant girlfriend, Veronica, to an establishment run by the hardened whore Liliom, where the sinister Dr. Fusi - wearing a strapless corset, smoking a cigarette and using an egg beater - performs an abortion. Guy, victim of too much head trauma, suddenly develops amnesia. Ignoring Veronica as she lies on the operating table, he instead fixates on Liliom's daughter, the exotic Meta (Melissa Dionisio). But before Meta will succumb to him, she swears, "No hand shall touch me until my father is revenged." She demands that Guy kill her father’s murderers - her mother and her lover (who happens to be Guy’s teammate).

Revenge tragedy, ghost story, campy melodrama – Cowards Bend the Knee is a film in which director/writer Guy Maddin (not to be confused with the main character) makes and breaks his own narrative rules. The pleasure is watching how the fast-paced story careens from one outrageous plot turn to the next. This is one film in which over-the-top is sincere praise. Silent and filmed in black and white, it is even more outlandish than Maddin’s recent The Saddest Music in the World. As in his Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, the film is accompanied by a score featuring Mahler, as well as Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Though an homage to the pre-Code era, it has a 21st century sensibility. One chapter is entitled, appropriately, "Fisty." And out of left field, a father and son scene at a urinal turns into a showdown. Imaginative and eccentric, Cowards Bend the Knee is an archetypal introduction to the world of Maddin.
August 11, 2004

DVD Extras: Maddin's commentary is comatose in comparison to the melodramatic hysteria of his movie. For a film he calls hugely autobiographical, he reveals just enough information about himself without making the viewer feel like a voyeur. (He leaves that to the film - it was originally made to be seen in 10 parts through peepholes in an art gallery.) One of his interesting tidbits is that his mother plays Meta's blind grandmother. Maddin kept her literally in the dark during the shoot, having her wear glasses with blacked-out lenses so she couldn't see the on-set risqué antics.

“Love-Chaunt Workbooks” shares Coward’s rapid editing and visual style, as well as its peculiar hand fetish. But somehow, seemingly impossibly, this extra is even more elliptical and repetitive than the film itself. A behind-the-scenes, on-location look at Maddin's latest film, Brand upon the Brain!, was shot earlier this year in Seattle. It will be Maddin's first film outside his native Canada. Unfortunately, there's not enough footage from this silent, also autobiographical melodrama to whet the appetite. Kent Turner
September 20, 2005



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