In 1992, Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin and crew assembled for their third feature film – Careful, co-written by George Toles (and Maddin) and starring Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, and Brent Neale. The film takes place in the mountain-surrounded village of Tolzbad where the whispering villagers are always aware of a chance avalanche.
Careful opens using a chilling Wagnerian score of a moaning choir and a man’s voice-over warning, “Careful Otto. Don’t spill it. Hold your horses. Children, heed the warnings of your parents. Peril awaits the incautious wayfarer.” From the first frame you will notice that this film will not be like any other you’ve seen before – unless you happen to be familiar with German expressionism.
Maddin draws his inspiration from F.W. Murnau and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; using monochrome tints of violent reds, baby-bird blues, and emerald greens in most of the scenes. The sets are insanely incredible – every time I watch a film by Maddin I get lost in the aesthetic of the scenery, lighting, and sound. If I didn’t know that Careful was a Guy Maddin effort, I would assume that it was a rare print from the 1920s.
Indeed, the film is almost more about detail than plot – from papier-mâché mountain ranges to the almost two-dimensional trains and gondolas – while the floating particles of dust on the print gives Careful the feel of a portal to an explosive moment in film history.
Maddin was also influenced by the 1930 Universal musical King of Jazz and its use of two-strip Technicolor, which sometimes has the ability to majestically produce a third vibrant color. There’s one scene in Careful where the two colors used are a brown/orange mix and a hint of violet that becomes barely visible in the background. It seems accidental (and in some ways it is) but the reveal of violet concurs with the tone of the film’s sinister nature and themes of repression.
The plot focuses on two families, one set of butler-in-training brothers, Grigorss & Johann, living with their single mother, Zenaida, and older isolated mute/paraplegic brother, Franz, and one set of sisters, Klara & Sigleinde, and their single father, Herr Trotta, who delivers the early warning. The village is warned to always be silent, to speak in whispers, walk lightly. The word “careful” is uttered many times, especially in terms of love.
However, Johann falls for Klara and they agree to be married. On the night that Johann proposes to Klara he has a sexy dream about his mother which results in a lustful attraction and obsession. The day after, there is a sensational, erotic scene at the breakfast table where Johann focuses on the slopes and curves of his mother’s body while she eats. Meanwhile, at butler school, Johann and Grigorss are given the warning “Never Gamble With Life.”
As Johann continues to go mad with lust (including a scene where he peeps on his mother bathing), the ghost of Johann’s blind father appears to Franz who is locked in the attic. This Hamlet episode has the blind ghost instructing Franz to stop Johann from having sex with his mother. Of course, Franz is unable of following these orders – the blind father appealed to the wrong the brother.
Johann then creates a love potion which he mixes into a tall glass of milk and hands to his sensuous mother – I’ll never shake the sound of the mother gulping that milk. She passes out and Johann cuts her shirt open and places his mouth on her breast.
Following this Johann realizes what he’s done, sears his lips with a hot coal and snips his fingers off with garden shears (Maddin uses a fantastic bone-snapping sound here). Johann is still not satisfied with his self-punishment so he decides to throw himself off of one of the mountains. This is where some of the best humor creeps into the film. As Johann runs to his death, he closes the gate that leads to the mountain peak. To further the joke, his brother Grigorss follows Johann to save him, and also closes the gate on his way up – thus too late to reach Johann. After Johann’s death, Grigorss tries to court Klara while he is accepted to be the butler of the Oz-like figurehead Count Knotkers.
While the tale of the brothers and the attraction to the mother is taking place, Klara herself is persistent in trying to gain the affection of her father Herr Trotta. The problem is that Herr Trotta favors the younger, more beautiful sister Sigleinde, with whom he spends all of his time. Maddin never disguises the fact that he uses melodrama to move his films, which is one of the reasons Careful has so much charm.
Additionally, Careful offers a knife duel (bit of trivia – Winnipeg, according to Maddin, was one of the last places to abolish the duel which were carried there until ’60s) that takes place on one of the mountains. When two characters later plan a devious scheme while riding on a gondola through the mountain, they are forced to yawn by the high altitude. Kudos to Maddin and Toles.
Now, I do not want this be an exact replica of the plot; some moments should be left unsaid – and I have left out quite a lot of this convoluted, yet mesmerizing plot.
Maddin’s bizarre film technique has been translated well to the DVD format in 1.33:1 aspect released by Kino International. The special features include Chapter Breaks, Audio Commentary by Director Guy Maddin and Writer George Toles, and an hour-long documentary, Waiting in Twilight, narrated by Tom Waits, about Maddin’s progression as a filmmaker and his then upcoming film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997). (It’s interesting that the documentary wasn’t placed on the Twilight of the Ice Nymphs DVD, but is has a nice home on this single disc.)
The audio commentary is one of the best that I have heard in a long time, Maddin and Toles discuss the magic behind the film while revealing production anecdotes and little inside jokes. One of the more interesting stories was that the image of the blind ghost was created by actor Michael O’Sullivan standing (blindfolded) on a fourteen-foot ladder while reflected in a sheet of plexiglass.
The documentary offers some great interviews with Maddin’s collaborators (including Toles) and long-time friend/producer Greg Klymkiw. Klymkiw’s perspective of their adolescence is a little inspiring: “We were all a bunch of slackers … Endless days of slacking … It all ends up that you’re going to be making films. What else are you going to do with your time?”
If Careful is the result of constant slacking then I cannot wait to see what I might produce as a filmmaker. The film was exact in every detail, as meticulous as the butlers-in-training with their removal of every speck and folding of every napkin. It picked me up and dropped me into its world.
Careful is a wild combination of realism and surrealism: you are entirely aware that you are watching a film, with all the swooning, dream sequences, camp expressions, and inter-titles, but the emotional territory into which Careful trespasses is as real as any family situation of incest or sibling rivalry, jealously, hatred. The film is an erotic, humorous, desperate, and melodramatic portrayal of small-town mentality that is constantly moving forward with conscientious timing. (Maddin used to be a math major before turning to film directing.)
With Maddin taking credit as director, co-writer, director of photography, production designer, editor, and sound editor, Careful makes it obvious that he is a passionate and perfectionist filmmaker.
© Keith Waterfield
Careful (1992). Dir.: Guy Maddin. Scr.: Guy Maddin and George Toles; from a story by Toles. Cast: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, Brent Neale.