Cowards Bend The Knee

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Cowards Bend The Knee

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The second in an astonishing one-year cinematic hat trick bookended by Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary and The Saddest Music In The World, Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend The Knee operates at the remote intersection of slapstick and melodrama. Abortion, incest, infidelity, revenge, and hockey collide at a fever pitch, juxtaposed with such frantic energy that they're pushed to the level of high comedy, funniest at its most dramatic. Intended as a one-hour museum installation, to be viewed like an old-fashioned peepshow, the film gets Maddin's signature silent treatment: Shot in grainy Super-8, the footage has been filtered and tinted, photographed through microscopic fisheye lenses, and dirtied up as if it were rotting in the archives for a century. Even for a director known for his breakneck pacing, Cowards seems a few hummingbird beats faster than usual, wound into Maddin's most sustained piece of tension since his masterful 2000 short The Heart Of The World, which he aptly described as "the world's first subliminal melodrama." Told in 10 chapters with such catchy titles as "The Blue Hands Of Vengeance" and "The Furies," the film opens with the Winnipeg Maroons wrapping up another hockey championship with a star player named Guy Maddin, played as a hilariously put-upon hero by Darcy Fehr. Not long after the champagne bath, Fehr skates triumphantly off the ice to his girlfriend Amy Stewart, who awaits with troubling news of her pregnancy. Without a second's haste, Fehr and Stewart head down to the Black Silhouette, a salon-by-day/bordello-by-night that also offers abortion services performed by a lascivious old doctor. In perhaps the least appropriate romantic gesture in movie history, Fehr swoons for the headmistress' beautiful daughter Melissa Dionisio mid-procedure, and the blissful new couple leaves Stewart splayed out on the operating slab. But the duplicitous Dionisio won't let Fehr touch her until he avenges her father's murder–and uses the dead man's severed blue hands to do it! As ever, Maddin can pack an entire movie's worth of intrigue into five minutes, with full backstories relayed in a few seconds, working in an exhilarating shorthand that borders on the experimental. On the surface, Maddin's decision to name the easily duped lead character after himself seems like clever self-deprecation, but beyond all the wackiness, the film could be read as something more personal. Representing the chief "coward" of the title, the hero has a fear of family and commitment that gives the story its dramatic charge, informing every unfortunate choice he makes. (Wary of fatherhood, he looks more comfortable strangling his best friend than giving an infant a salon-quality manicure.) With Maddin himself heading into a self-imposed hiatus after this recent flurry of productivity, perhaps he also sees the wisdom of hanging up the skates.

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