- Director: Guy Maddin
- Writers: George Toles and Guy Maddin
- Starring: Kyle McCulloch, Kathy Marykuca, Ari Cohen, Sarah Neville, David Falkenburg, Michael Gottli, and Margaret Anne McLeod
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app)
We are continuing with our World Cinema Winter Festival, just on a somewhat more relaxed time frame than previously contemplated. I think what I’ve learned from this experience is that this site works better with the rest of my life if I don’t try to make commitments that certain things are going to happen on certain days for the time being and just move forward with things as best we can. Thus we move forward with today’s entry, Archangel, from Canada, which of the entries in this Festival is almost certain to be the most baffling. It is a relatively early work of the director Guy Maddin, who has become among the most acclaimed and beloved Canadian directors both nationally and internationally without ever really making a “regular” movie that most people are even going to see. Archangel is, decidedly, no exception to this general rule.
My first experience with Guy Maddin was My Winnipeg, from 2013, the result of Maddin being commissioned to make a documentary about his hometown, with the sole instruction that he not portray Winnipeg as “the icy hellhole we all know it to be.” Maddin turns out to not be particularly interested in what stories about Winnipeg’s past are real and what aren’t, instead choosing to create a sort of dreamy mythological version of the city. It’s kind of amazing. Many of Maddin’s films, including Archangel, have that feeling that they are more visual records of someone’s dreams than actual narrative films. Roger Ebert, prior to his death, was a particular promoter of Maddin, writing about his Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary that “so many films are more or less alike that it’s jolting to see one that deals with a familiar story, but looks like no other.”
Therein, I think, lies the divide between a lot of audiences and a lot of critics regarding what we’d call “art films.” Critics and hardcore film people have such a familiarity with movies and the way that they work that new and different approaches take on an outsized importance. Most audiences don’t care about how “unique” and conceptually exciting a movie is, they care about how actually exciting it is. Maddin is a filmmaker who has based entire features on emulating obscure Russian or German silent film genres. He is, perhaps moreso than almost any other modern, internationally-known director, not for everybody.
Like much of Maddin’s early work, Archangel was shot on the cheap, on black and white film stock, with his friends from Winnipeg in pretty much all of the acting roles. It was not until later that he started working with professional actors. His lead here, Kyle McCulloch, went on, very randomly, to be a staff writer on South Park at the height of that show’s cultural relevance, and is thought to be responsible for the series’ prominent placement of Canadian weirdness (“Blame Canada!”). He also went on direct a SpongeBob SquarePants movie. Here, McCulloch plays a Canadian soldier named Boles who is involved in the short-lived unsuccessful Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War circa 1918 as World War I wound down, which ended quickly and badly for basically everyone involved. Not so different from My Winnipeg and some of his other films, Maddin takes this obscure-but-true historical nugget of a Canadian military expedition into Siberia and turns it into… whatever is happening here.
Archangel is meant to imitate very, very early sound films, sometimes called “part-talkies,” and if not for its innate ultra-weirdness it would be easy to believe this to be a lost film from circa 1930. Boles, distraught over the recent death of his wife Iris, is billeted with a local family in Archangelsk, Russia, where he is driven insane by the fact that their beautiful warrior woman daughter, Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca) looks just like Iris, to the point where he develops the belief that Veronkha is Iris and the baby who is also in the house is their child. She is married to Philbin (that’s a Russian name, for sure), but he has developed amnesia such that he can’t remember anything after their wedding day. Boles and Veronkha then spend half the movie sort of vaguely traveling over haunted battlefields. One seems to be strewn with corpses but then it’s revealed all the men are just asleep.
Of the movies we’ve watched here, Archangel is the one where you actually asked me to discuss the things that happened, I would have the most trouble. I think the key to getting anything out of it is not to particularly worry about that kind of stuff. Is there something to the idea that basically all of the characters in this movie have memory loss of one kind or another, while the Russian locals also seem to have forgotten something important: that World War I is over? I suppose. They are still fighting their own weird little private war, for reasons the movie is pretty up front about thinking are not good enough to fight a war over. But that is also probably not the main point, if there is one. Archangel is basically somebody’s dream, and in some ways feels like a dream plucked out of history somewhere, but still a dream.