8/10 (Very Good)
Guy Maddin’s first feature film is a spectacle to behold. A classic sort of frame story devolves (positively) into a dreamlike wandering in an alternative Iceland, with strange preachers, bark fish, a woman discovered on the shore wrapped in nets, young girls floating down rivers in coffins… Maddin manipulates silent black-and-white film (in a reverential way). We occasionally hear the characters speak, sometimes we hear nothing (but the mouths move, the characters scream), and, strange tintures of color appear. Maddin’s later films move more into the controversial realm so Tales from the Gimli Hospital is a good place to begin (along with my favorite, My Winnipeg). So if you like experimental film, manipulation of past cinematic forms, and in this case, a minimalist dreamlike story (replete with uncanny/bizarre images) seek it out!
Brief Plot Summary
Two children are comforted by their grandmother at the hospital bedside of their dying mother. Soon the grandmother’s storytelling transports the viewer to “a Gimli we no longer know” — a version of the same hospital but with three beds and two disease-ridden patients — Einar the Lonely (as his epithet suggests) and Gunnar (a corpulent loquacious man with squinty eyes).
This “other” distant Gimli occupies a dreamlike plain, separated from the rest of the world (wherever Gimli might be, a vague “remembered” Iceland?) by quarantine — three angelic nurses become the the objects of desire. Initially the two are friends and companions — each undergoing bizarre surgical treatments without anesthetic, only the slapstick humor of a portable puppet show (and a gun toting jester sort of character in black face) to distract them. Gunnar shows Einar the “art” of cutting fish from bark with scissors. And bark fish appreciation…
Einar becomes intensely jealous of Gunnar who receives much better attention from the nurses because of his loquacious nature. And, when Einar lends Gunnar his own special bark cutting scissors each reveal their stories and dark secrets, and of course, how they intertwine.
Guy Maddin is by far one of my favorite directors – I only have two of his films left to watch (Careful and Archangel). Tales from the Gimli Hospital contains many of themes which Maddin will later explore — primarily, nostalgia, storytelling, memory…. However, unlike his later films, Tales is not characterized by his frenetic shots but contains his trademark grainy images, etc. The film comes off as positively meditative, deliberate, and world immersing. This is a great film which should be seen by fans of Maddin and experimental film in general!