Guy Maddin & Isabella Rossellini

“So few people understand what melodrama is. It’s not real life exaggerated, as so many people feel. It’s not the truth exaggerated. Exaggerating the truth would deform it, make the art dishonest. Really good melodrama is the truth uninhibited.”

BOMB 108 Summer 2009
BOMB 108
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Isabella Rossellini in My Dad Is 100 Years Old. Photo by Jody Shapiro. All images courtesy of Guy Maddin.

A cinephile would have to delve deep into the industry vaults of spooled monochrome to find a more beautiful ongoing collaboration than that developed by director Guy Maddin and actress Isabella Rossellini. The best comparisons would, no doubt, include the sensual ennui of Monica Vitti reified through the lens of Antonioni or the baroque stare of Liv Ullmann captured in the snow-globe world of Bergman. Few images are more exciting or iconographic than the female form, frenzied or subdued. While this cinematic tradition has been explored in Roland Barthes’s ode to the face of Garbo—which he compares to “mystical feelings of perdition”—it is Jean-Luc Godard’s glib observation that is the most quotable: “The history of cinema is boys photographing girls.”

In contrast to the patriarchal tradition that enjoined the elder, virile artist with his female ingénues, the Maddin/Rossellini relationship is a thoroughly postcoital affair. From their first collaboration in The Saddest Music in the World (2003) to their most recent loop Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair (2009), they have consistently traded gendered representations of masculine power for a bunco scam of sexual aporias. As a director and an actress whose bond might very well be called “epicene,” resistant to the psychology of the domineering male artiste but also shedding the habiliments of dowager feminism, their creative romance resides in androgyny.

But sexual transgression is only half of the story. In the Maddin/Rossellini world, sexual identity can never be separated from genealogical identity, conjugal pleasures from the congenital curse. If Rossellini’s artistic passions toward the world at large have always appeared as heirlooms of a visionary father, director Roberto Rossellini, then Maddin’s visions of the world in miniature have equally proceeded from an impassioned and overbearing mother. In the 2005 Maddin film My Dad Is 100 Years Old—scripted entirely by Rossellini—the actress lovingly narrates her father’s artistic heritage as she is shadowed by his omnipresent naked belly. Maddin’s subsequent films, Brand Upon the Brain (2006) and My Winnipeg (2007) have, in turn, featured “Mother” as their central character. Conceiving of elaborate paeans to domesticity with dramatizations of Oedipal longing, Maddin designs beautiful, bleary netherworld—often silent, sometimes surreal, always melodramatic—from the Vaseline-smudged chiaroscuro of his camera eye.

When Maddin and Rossellini produce something together upon the screen, they appear rarely as two separate artists but much more like atmospheres. Hers is the scorched radiance of the sun and his is the crenellated chill of a snowdrift.

—Erik Morse

Isabella Rossellini So, Mr. Maddin, I have you in my interrogation chamber!

Guy Maddin Yes, Isabella. I remember getting to interview you a few years back. I know this is your chance for revenge, but please, no hooding or forced nudity. Remember there are protocols against that now.

IR I’ll let you remind me of that if it comes up. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking lately of how we met, in Central Park, way back in 2002. Did you set that up? It sure seems convenient for you how it all worked out.

GM I swear I set up nothing. How could I? I was merely strolling through the park when I saw you petting that big Labrador. It was natural that I would start petting it too.

IR You didn’t hire the Labrador for the occasion?

GM That’s something Fred Astaire would do to meet Ginger Rogers. I wish I were that smart. No. Its master was simply taking it for a walk, and you were talking to its owner, a man who remains only a mustache in my memory, and the dog was holding your hand in its mouth. I do remember pretending not to recognize you. I struck up a chat with you and the mustache and slipped my own hand inside that same Labrador mouth, the one that held your hand.

IR That was a sneaky move. The men back in Rome would never stoop so low.

GM I couldn’t care less. I was happy. I remember the dog’s tongue, which seemed as long as a hall runner, had wrapped itself in between and around all your fingers, and mine too, and then the dog and mustache at some point went away and we were left crouching on the walk, our fingers all tangled up and glistening with drool.

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Still from My Winnipeg. Photo by Jody Shapiro.

IR That’s when you mentioned you had written a script for me!

GM And you ended up working on the picture The Saddest Music in the World. Couldn’t have worked out better if I’d hired a skywriter! Strange how someone else’s dog brought us together, considering how important dogs are to you, how many you have, and how often you’ve walked your own in Central Park.

IR Yes, I’ve always had my own dogs and, more recently, puppies that I help train for the Guide Dog Foundation. Every June the foundation sends me a pregnant dog and I act as midwife to the litter—I keep one puppy and ready it for service. I have one named Jamal right now. He’s doing just fine.

GM Do these puppies ever remind you of your own childhood? I know your parents split up when you were just five, and off you went to live in a Paris hotel, right? That’s a change every bit as sudden as being sent off to guide dog college.

IR Yes, we three kids went to live with my mother in the Hotel Raphael in Paris, but since she had to work in movies, we were often with our nanny. After a year my siblings and I were sent off to Rome to live with my aunt. There I saw my father at least every weekend and my mother whenever she wasn’t working on a picture. We were happy puppies.

GM Long before I met you I’d read your memoir Some of Me. I was struck by how frankly you spoke of your love for your father. Your writing voice is unique. I know a ghostwriter was initially hired to compose this book, but then let go after the editor read your superb notes. As a writer you are sometimes still a young daughter; sometimes the worldly sophisticate people expect you to be; sometimes you’re as bawdy or clinical as a sailor or scientist—and frequently you’re all of these things simultaneously. The real revelation for me was when I read that almost three decades after your father’s death you still thought often and tenderly of him. He died way back in June of 1977, exactly three weeks before my own father. That made a temperamental connection with me; I felt we would understand each other.

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Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney in The Saddest Music in the World. Photo by Jody Shapiro.

There was certainly something that clicked between us right away. I’d like to think it was more than our dead fathers. I know we are both comfortable with watching melodrama—perhaps that’s your Icelandic heritage. Your motherland has all those sagas that are told in broad, violent strokes. I’m Scanditalian, a perfect mix of Ibsen and opera! We both watch melodrama without cringing, and see the world as melodrama. I’ve seen you behave very melodramatically, especially on set.

GM Yes, the first movie we watched together, before you signed on to Saddest Music, was The Unknown, with Lon Chaney—we both loved it. Lon plays a man in love with a woman who has been traumatized by the groping hands of too many men, so he has his arms amputated in a miscalculated attempt to please her. Very self-castrating! Pure Grand Guignol melodrama! Opera without singing! It’s like that movie was shot where Iceland and Italy intersect. I’ve since watched the movie with other people and never got the same feeling from them. That movie went down so easily for you—it was like watching you drink a glass of water.

So few people understand what melodrama is. It’s not real life exaggerated, as so many people feel. It’s not the truth exaggerated. Exaggerating the truth would deform it, make the art dishonest. Really good melodrama is the truth uninhibited. In our dreams, where our emotions are uninhibited, if we are lucky, we get to do and experience all the things we repress during civilized waking hours. In our dreams we get to possess the one after whom we lust, strike the one we hate, steal, wail out loud, and remove our clothes—all in front of a public which wouldn’t tolerate this unrestrained behavior in the daylight world. In our sleep thoughts we get to be as childish as we long to be! We dream the truth about our feelings, sometimes in a discombobulated way, but these are real feelings churning themselves up. In a good melodrama the same disinhibition occurs. You see, these are not exaggerated feelings, they are repressed feelings liberated. There’s a big difference! If you look at melodrama in this light you won’t cringe.

IR I know from watching the films you make that violence is not what holds your interest, though. People and things that are no longer here haunt you; you want to put the feelings they produce in you up on the screen. You thought I was just as haunted as you when we first met, but I’m not. I believe some people are just born haunted—you are one such person.

I don’t mean to belittle your ghosts. It’s a good thing to be so in touch with the past, with your place in the grand flow of time. I’ve never met anyone more obsessed with calculating his precise position in some big, abstract arc. It’s kind of sweet.

GM By day I’m just following through on a bunch of questions of intense love and longing that are raised in my dreams almost every night. But, oh, Isabella, it’s not so sweet. I think there’s something wrong with me. It’s true. I can’t stop thinking of the unstoppable tide of time. It’s practically made me a necrophiliac. Let’s say I pick up an old baseball card. I read on it that Yogi Berra was born in 1925. I instantly know that that was the year of Babe Ruth’s big bellyache; the year my Aunt Lil worked as a chambermaid while my mother was nine and still on the farm; I’ll realize that Berra is 84 now and that when my grandmother was 84, I was seven—which is when my brother died! My musing always brings me back to some death or sudden removal, someone or something I loved that is no longer with me. No matter what I pick up—be it a baseball card, a paperback, or even dog droppings—I’m always back in this sad, but sweet, state of recollection. It is way more sweet than sad, by the way.

I just assumed that since you too had had this sudden removal at such a young age, you were wired the same way. My long-gone brother remains a mystery to me, but I feel I’ve somehow gotten to know my father better through all the dreams I’ve had of him since he died. I’m no mystic; it’s possible that I have just started to get to know him through the better access to memory that dreaming sometimes offers. Do you ever dream of your parents, now that they’re both not only divorced from each other, but dead? Wait, the idea of Isabella Rossellini dreaming of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman makes for quite the star-encrusted dream program.

IR I think the dream paparazzi might be very disappointed by the unsexy inventory of maiden aunts, old school teachers, Starbucks baristas, and vacuum-cleaner salesmen that people the dreams of their favorite stars. There are not many conventional tabloid photo ops in the subconscious. You or David Cronenberg might like to lug your cameras around in my nightscape, though.

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Isabella Rossellini in Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair. Photo by Jody Shapiro.

I had a series of dreams about my father for about seven nights in a row shortly after he died. He was still alive and talking to me in them, but every night he was a little worse off. On the first night he was very tired, on the second night he was bluish in color, on the third night he was starting to decay. He wanted to borrow some of my perfume to cover the smell of his rotting. With each passing night his ridiculous condition worsened, yet he also became more stubborn, more reluctant to die. In the end he died in my dreams just as he had died in life. Over the years, my father has returned in occasional dreams, but with his health restored. Once I dreamt that he had not died at all, but had gone to live with a family he liked better than ours. I hated the feelings I was left with all day after having these dreams.

With my mother, the dreams are completely different. She had cancer for nine years before she finally died. In my dreams I approach her, a figure reclining on a couch or bed. She is in her forties and very beautiful. She is healthy, but always half-asleep and so languid. She opens her eyes with great effort, begging to be left alone, only to shut them again. She literally fights through her sleep to say, “I want to be alone,” just like Garbo. Then she returns to sleep.

GM That’s uncanny! Have you ever seen Necrologue by Matthias Müller? It has exactly the same sad and weighty tone as your dream of your mother; shockingly, the film even stars your mother! The filmmaker takes a shot of Ingrid from Under Capricorn and ever so slowly, by step-printing the clip into the slowest of slow motion, he opens her eyes, awakens her from sleep, and then just as slowly returns her to it—it takes about five minutes. So strange to hear you describe your mom in the same way Müller presents her.

IR That’s so odd. I must see it.

GM I’ll send you a copy. I’ve had it for a few years but I thought you might be too uncomfortable looking at your mother represented this way until I just heard your account of that dream. Such a strange coincidence!

Speaking of which, as with your later dream of Roberto, where he has found a more suitable family for himself, as a child I found out my father really had one of these secret families, another whole life. A real-life character out of Wakefield, but with kids. I spied on them through the window as they dined, marveling at their familial harmony. Then I discovered, with horror, that my mother had the same secret family. Not just one but both of my parents had parallel lives elsewhere, together, with happier and better kids: a Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield, although I don’t think Nathaniel Hawthorne had this in mind when he wrote that great tale of deadbeat paternity. Both my mom and dad were much happier one block away. Still, they had to return regularly and grudgingly look after us, their dreary, inferior children. Or, at least, they did in my dreams, for this scenario wasn’t really a part of the waking world, but a recurring dream of mine that perplexed me for many adolescent years.

IR Are these perplexed feelings the kind you are trying to reproduce in your movies? For all their bizarreness, they do orbit around loss and betrayal, things all of us have felt at one time or another.

GM Yes, it’s strange. When I started making movies I was in my late twenties and thought I was making really hip stuff. It was cheeky and looked underground. But, the more I think of it, I was writing stuff that would more naturally come out of a much older man, an elderly man contemplating all the things that have gone before which he can only revisit through sudden accesses of lucid memory, Proust-like! Admittedly, this older man was a very horny one, and his boner seemed to be the divining rod that found the narrative thread for the director whenever he lost it. But there was definitely a delirious representation of loss in the movies. It was so obsessively represented, in fact, it was almost a celebration.

Now that I’ve finally finished the book version of My Winnipeg and gotten it into stores, now that I’m done with all this self-indulgent consideration, I think I see what I’ve been up to all along. It’s positively puerile in a way. When my brother Cameron passed away I remember asking my other brother Ross if Cam was going to come back to life. He didn’t know what to say, so he just told me, “Yes, he’s coming back.” I ran upstairs to console my mother with the news that her son would soon be coming back, and alive, too. She corrected me, though I don’t think I’ve ever been able to let go of this childish notion of resurrection. I’m not religious, so it’s a secular resurrection. I find it in my movies all the time. People forgetting their loved ones are dead, people forgetting they’ve been dumped, people going back home again after a long absence—these are all forms of resurrection, ways of reviving feelings for people and places that matter most.

With the film My Winnipeg I even became obsessed with casting Ann Savage, the long-retired film noir femme fatale whose ferocity seemed to push through all the decades of her inactivity. She lived and breathed fire for me whenever I watched her in Detour, made way back in 1945. I lured her up to my hometown and put her on screen as my mother. I was working with the same mad zeal that possesses Dr. Frankenstein in his lab, except I was godlessly trying to resurrect Ann Savage. She’s much more gorgeous than Karloff. In the film I also attempt to raise buildings that have been demolished, to reoccupy my childhood home, to shame the city of Winnipeg for changing even a single thing since my childhood. The whole thing is one big wish fulfilled for a very young child! Except that when you think back to our working definition of melodrama, you realize the movie is actually a melodramatic documentary. Everything I describe in the city is done so with childish, uninhibited feeling. These are my unrepressed longings brought to light and packed into 80 minutes, except in a documentary form, but using the same methods as the director of a good melodrama might.

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Ann Savage in My Winnipeg. Photo by Jody Shapiro.

IR I love My Winnipeg, but I’ve never thought of it as a melodrama. That’s interesting.

GM I think I’m just developing these takes as I go, but I’m pleased with them. Why shouldn’t there be a place for a documentary that eschews objectivity and inhibition and just lets desire flap in the breeze like a giant flag at Perkins? The movie would seem as large a distortion of Direct Cinema’s old correlatives as the most heinous propaganda, but unlike propaganda it would be, at heart, completely true!

IR Well, armed with this new clarity of purpose, what are you up to now? What’s your next project?

GM I want to get back to dramatic fiction and make a feature film. I’m describing this next movie to myself as an autobiography of a house. It might even be narrated by a house, who knows? I want to embed within a story of a large family the powerful feelings held latently within the architecture of a home. Everybody’s home, if he or she is lucky enough to have one, is jam-packed with powerful emotional signifiers. Even a homeless person, shuddering beneath a cardboard lean-to, has a perception of that shelter as a home—at least that’s what Gaston Bachelard, the author of that post-war philosophical bestseller, The Poetics of Space, would assert. I want to expose for the viewer, using melodramatic implements of excavation similar to Bachelard’s philosophic ones, the overwhelming and mysterious values both active and dormant in each room of this giant house. Film and philosophy don’t always mix so easily, although they obviously can, but the home is a locus of pure feeling and I’m happy to let philosophy stand aside and let classical drama take over. After all, it’s as ancient as philosophy, and as durable.

If you read Euripides’s plays now, over 2,500 years after they were written, they are as easy to ingest as soap operas, and they’re beautifully composed and tell us all about our families now. I’m hoping you’ll star in the film, Isabella. I think you’d make a great Medea! I know in real life you are the most wonderful mother, but you have to admit you’d be one sexy monster of a mother on screen! You have that Scanditalian edge on Joan Crawford!

IR I just played a mother in a film. Joaquin Phoenix is my son in Two Lovers!

GM That picture is destined to be a classic. And it’s Joaquin’s last film, if you’re gullible enough to believe what you hear of his retirement.

IR He is so sweet! One of the great impostors of Hollywood! A very nice man to work with.

GM So I need you to play another kind of mother in this autobiography of a house. It’s called Keyhole. It’s actually a crime film about a family of gangsters holed up in a big house, but there’s been a fissure along gender lines and everyone trembles in fear and loathing within a house divided. In the backstory, you’d be the adoptive mother of an Amazon warrior. I want to adapt Kleist’s Penthesilea of the ‘30s, an incredibly intense play about the literal battle of the sexes, between the armies of the ancient Greeks and the Amazons. The beautiful Penthesilea and Achilles hate each other so much they transmute the hatred into lust, naturally. They are constantly tearing away at each other’s flesh but don’t know why, or to what end, whether mortal or sexual. The lust is almost entomological—it’s almost as crazy as with the insects you portray in your Green Porno films! I want to borrow all the mad love from Kleist and those amazing shorts of yours and weave them somehow onto this philosophical text. I still find myself wishing that my undergrad philosophy courses had more crazy sex in them. You have more Green Porno films coming out, don’t you?

IR Yes, some just came out this spring; they’re up on the Sundance Channel site. Four more are coming out this fall.

GM I just adore them! Everyone should be exposed to your Green Porno, from kindergarten kids to debauched old men. They’re under a minute in many cases, but they’re packed with so much erotic allegory. When you chose the sex lives of insects for your subject, you had yourself a wild frontier of moviemaking. Insects mate so savagely, sometimes so counterintuitively. At times they remind you of the mad love of humans, and at others they are just inexplicably alien. I’ve always identified with your male black widow spider. You are almost always the male in these sexual reenactments, by the way—I love the joy you put into all that masculine humping! Except with this spider there is no humping. The female spider is too terrifying, so the male collects his sperm on his, well, sort-of hands, and speeds past the female in a cowardly dash, smearing his seed on the female before she suspects anything. I’ve often felt like that’s what we men are basically doing out here in the great mating ritual marshland. Your little sexual lessons are as cruel as real life, and hilarious too.

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Guy Maddin, Winnipeg Sleepwalks, 2006, preparatory collage for My Winnipeg, 3 × 5”.

IR I’ve never thought of them as allegories. I just read up on all these fascinating ways that insects mate. Now, with the latest batch, I’ve done sea creatures as well. There are so many ways to mate and they’re all so much fun! I try to distill what charms or intrigues me about each and then try to personify it. I dress up in a stylized mantis or squid costume and go at it. I’ve been lucky that people like them so much. You’ve always bemoaned what a late starter you are, Guy, but I too have always been a late starter. I started modeling at 28, I started acting in my thirties, writing in my forties, and now I’m directing in my late fifties. I love it. I’m even hoping to get my masters degree in biology in the next few years.

GM I’m glad you love it, and seem to have no regrets. I still regret not learning to skate till I was 18. That kept me out of the National Hockey League. The shame of not skating as a child in Winnipeg—incredible! Is it true you were almost killed by an elephant seal while shooting the latest Pornos?

IR Yes, I was standing in front of one and talking into the camera. This male weighed, I don’t know how many tons. Apparently he spotted a female nearby and charged at it. I was standing with my back to this stampeding slab of muscle and had no idea it was coming. If you look carefully, you can see the cameraman reflected in my sunglasses, running for his life. The bull just charged right by me in his pursuit of a mate; he just missed me by what seemed a few inches!

GM That’s a thrill not many people can report having.

IR It was over before I knew I was having it.

GM Even that statement seems like a snippet of sexual allegory. Everything that comes out of your head, Isabella! You told me something else about these seals that I like. There is one dominant male who basks in the center of a veritable harem of females, and outside of this harem lie many “peripheral” males waiting for the sultan of the harem to leave or weaken for a second, so they can sneak in for their shot at copulating. I’ve always been one of these peripheral elephant seal males.

IR There you go anthropomorphizing again. You’re like Walt Disney and his ducks.

But you’re not alone. We have a friend in common who couldn’t get it out of his head that he was an anglerfish; or at least one as we portray him in the Green Porno films. The male anglerfish attaches itself to the side of the female and slowly loses all his functions except the continual production of sperm. He is reduced to nothing but a set of genitals that impregnates the female whenever she desires it. Likewise, our friend feels he has no brain, no other organs but the One.

GM These movies of yours really take you on a frightening ride of introspection. That’s what I want to expose the kindergarten kids to; more children should be aware of the fathomless terrors of sex! Let’s show the world together, Isabella, the plangent hauntings of every home and the empty, but horrifying, attics of sex!

IR Okay, sign me up.

GM So I can star you in Keyhole? And I want to get your friend Geraldine Chaplin in there, and her daughter Oona! And my new friend Luce Vigo, the daughter of Jean Vigo! Perhaps I can resurrect more than I can handle by engaging these mesmeric talents! I even know Judy Wyler now, daughter of William, though she’s not an actress. I must be on the verge of some occult formula which will unleash memory upon itself and show us the unblinking eye of truth in cinema once and for all!

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Paul Butler, Sundance, 2006, preparatory collage for My Winnipeg, 3 × 5”

IR Perhaps you’ve gone mad?

GM I’ll tell you how mad I am, how mad to resurrect: I have an unshakable fantasy of persuading the great Olivia de Havilland—who’s 92, just like my mother—to shoot an extra scene to be tacked on to the end of her 1949 masterpiece The Heiress. I would return to the still-surviving Heiress set on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and have her walk down the very stairs she climbed 60 years ago after bolting her front door to Montgomery Clift. After descending these steps, she would then unlock that front door and look outside for a second to see if, by some miracle, Monty is still there. Then she could climb the stairs all over again and go back to bed. This scene could be shot so simply! I must do it; if I don’t I shall regret the missed opportunity forever. Talk about regrets! O, tortures!

Guy Maddin’s filmic output to date—nine feature-length projects and innumerable Contributors shorts—includes the features The Saddest Music in the World, Brand upon the Brain!, and My Winnipeg. He is the recipient of numerous distinctions, including the Telluride Silver Medal for Life Achievement in 1995 and the San Francisco international Film Festival’s Golden Gate Persistence of vision Award in 2006. Maddin is also a writer and Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence at the University of Manitoba.

Isabella Rossellini is an actress, filmmaker, author, philanthropist, and model. her most memorable performances include her role as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet and as Perdita Durango in Wild at Heart, both directed by David Lynch. She has starred in a number of Guy Maddin’s films, including The Saddest Music in the World, My Dad is 100 Years Old, and, most recently, the installation loop Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair commissioned by the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year. She is the screenwriter, codirector, and star of the Green Porno films available at the Sundance Channel online.

Wim Wenders by Hillary Weston
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Originally published in

BOMB 108, Summer 2009

Featuring interviews with Dawoud Bey, Dike Blair and Joe Bradley, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn and Michael Smith, Nam Le and Charles D’Ambrosio, Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini, Bill Callahan and Jon Raymond, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, and Jacques Roubaud. 

Read the issue
BOMB 108