Stranded in the Jungle--35

Guy Maddin, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs

GLIMMER. The first thing I remember is the lighting. An exquisite radiance suffuses nearly every frame of Guy Maddin's 1997 film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. The film takes place in a land where the sun never sets. Each scene is backlit in gold, silver, or pink. The diffuse light streams horizontally through the forest, along the shore, and over the ostrich farm. It makes the most common objects glow with an unearthly sheen. It burnishes the actresses' pale skin and pastel costumes. Such a light is not found in nature. It is something extra, something we add to what we see. It glimmers only in our nostalgia and yearning, or in the artifice of a movie studio. Maddin creates an unreal world of wistful dreams and tacky glamour. He brings us back to a past that never was. He crafts his films to look like old-time movies. With its exaggerated colors, static camera, and mannered acting, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs seems like some sort of archaic experiment in color cinematography. It doesn't resemble any actual films from the twenties or thirties. But you can't help feeling it should have come from that era. The movie has a built-in sense of obsolescence. It is stilted and airless, like a kitschy souvenir preserved under glass. Its action unfolds in the past tense, rather than the present. Its images come to us like half-forgotten dreams. As Peter (actor uncredited) and Zephyr (Alice Krige) make love, the tide rises, and waves wash over their bed. Later, their passion spent, and the tide gone out again, Peter picks up a lobster from among the sheets, and tosses it back into the water. The absurdity of the image is matched only by the insouciance with which the film offers it to us. For this incongruous lobster is not a symbol. It is not a visitor from the depths of the unconscious. It is just there, a gratuitous gift of the sea. The film is full of such grotesque and useless artifacts. The sinister mesmerist Doctor Solti (R. H. Thomson) has a whole collection of them. And then there is the great statue of Venus. The Goddess of Love torments every character in the film. She allures them all with her flawless beauty, but she never grants any of their prayers. Her only response is to topple down upon them. The statue mangles the Doctor's leg, making him a cripple, before the film begins. It falls again, crushing Zephyr to death, at the climax. Each character struggles with the dead weight of the past, which is also the fatality of his or her desire. Despite its delicate beauty, the light of the midnight sun is cruel and implacable. It uncovers all secrets. It forbids repose. It tracks the characters relentlessly, leaving them no place to hide. These people all seem lost in an insomniac stupor. Sometimes they wander aimlessly through the woods. Other times, they hold a single posture, as if frozen. They gesture emphatically, to no avail. They break down in paroxysms of futile passion. They don't engage in conversation, so much as they declaim vehement speeches to one another. Maddin postdubbed the dialogue, and had all the actors speak in different accents, in order to get this sense of disconnection. Everyone in the film is driven mad by unrequited love. Peter spurns Zephyr, because he has fallen for the mysterious Juliana (Pascale Bussieres). But Juliana is entranced by the Doctor's hypnotic spell. If she flirts with Peter, it is only the better to reject him. The Doctor, meanwhile, toys sadistically with the affections of Peter's gawky sister Amelia (Shelly Duvall). And Amelia, in turn, suffers the ambiguous advances of her handyman, the aged eunuch Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin). Twilight of the Ice Nymphs dramatizes these hopeless infatuations in a series of ludicrous tableaux vivants. The film lurches from one lurid, embarrassing incident to the next. Each scene entombs yet another blasted emotion. All the while, overwrought romantic music plays on the soundtrack. Eventually, Amelia loses her mind, and murders Cain Ball. Juliana and the Doctor drive Peter to the utmost depths of despair and humiliation. When Peter cannot stand it any longer, he cries out to his only remaining friends, the trees in the forest. He begs the trees to crash down and obliterate them all. It's a wonderful melodramatic moment, full of rhetorical sound and fury. If I must perish, then let the whole world perish along with me. For an instant, the wind rages, as if responding to this plea. But in the end, of course, nothing happens. The world remains unmoved by Peter's ridiculous gesture. For why should things be tailored to the measure of his desperation and longing? Frustration is as fleeting, and disappointing, as desire. Even Peter's overwhelming sense of desolation succumbs to disillusionment. Each event in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is shadowed by the ghost of all the things that did not happen. That's why the film does not take place in the fullness of a living present. Things are always in process of fading away, and saying their farewells. As Juliana recites to Peter on three separate occasions: "This might have been the day we first knew we loved each other, and my kissing you now would not have meant goodbye."

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