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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1993


Guy Maddin
Brent Neale;
Kyle McCulloch;
Gosia Dobrowolska;
Vince Rimmer
Not rated

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"Careful" IS a bizarre tale indeed, a dreamlike, almost Technicolorish comedy set in the rarefied heights of a 19th-century Alpine village. In Tolzbad, the omnipresent snow has drifted right into the villagers' collective psyche. The residents spend their days trying not to cause an avalanche, by speaking quietly and not creating sudden noises. They're externally subdued but internally flurried.

In the fuzzily photographed images, their hair merges with the ethereal haze around them. They're literally part of the landscape. A barely perceptible but constant white noise -- like the sound of snowflakes threshing the air -- fills the soundtrack. Voices are deliberately muffled and echoless, as if they were recorded under a snowdrift. There's a sense of steadily rising, muffled hysteria.

As I mentioned, this is a comedy. Created by Canadian (oh, that explains it) director Guy Maddin, "Careful" isn't a rollicking knee slapper -- although I can imagine Winnipeg intellectuals really guffawing over this. It's surrealistically amusing, the kind of humor you'd find in a dream.

The dreamscape is a surface of barely submerged carnal desire -- particularly the incestuous kind. Take Johann (Brent Neale), a beatific, red-cheeked local. Although he's happily engaged to Klara (Sarah Neville), he can't take his eyes off his mother, a voluptuous widow named Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). After drugging his mother, then having his way with her, he does what any decent Tolzbadian would -- hack off the fingers of one hand, stick a burning coal in his mouth and jump to his death.

There are many other oddities in this campy hommage to assorted, aged convention, from early German cinema to Hollywood's Technicolor era. Johann and brother Grigorss (Kyle McCullogh), for instance, attend butler school where their major appears to be Obsessive Compulsion (one academic requirement: Restrain all your movements). When Klara tells of the incestuous abuse she suffered from her father, the altitude causes confessor and listener to yawn incessantly.

The movie, which features deliberately artificial sets and dynamic color schemes, also has a plethora of wacky, silent-movie intertitles. "Such is the moonrise in Tolzbad," says one, after the ghost of Zenaida's husband has made a "Hamlet"-like visit in response to his son's unnatural impulses.

Strange utterances between Tolzbadians are, of course, quite normal here: "Try not to sleepwalk," Zenaida tells Johann at bedtime when he wishes her goodnight.

Maddin, who made two other weird-idea movies ("Tales From the Gimli Hospital" and "Archangel"), keeps what could have been a one-joke theme interesting for an admirably long time.

But eventually, it becomes, well, hard to breathe. There's something wonderfully unique about the project but the reasons for doing it remain buried.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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