The grim characters populating this ersatz Icelandic scape (people with names like Snjofridur and Elfa Egilsdottir) spend more time than is good for them pinning fish to the sides of houses, worshiping them in pagan fishmonger rituals, washing themselves with the scaly things' gelatinous innards.
While there are moments that verge on the unpleasant (patients on cots, with smallpox "fissures" on their skin and fright in their eyes), believe it or not, this is a mostly lyrical, dreamy film, a dark but winsome excursion into a land of fevered reveries and visual non sequiturs.
Written and directed by Guy Maddin, a 31-year-old filmmaker from Winnipeg, Tales of the Gimli Hospital was put together for $22,000, employing a local band of actor friends, desolate Manitoba locales and a soundtrack of scratchy Nordic ballads and a little Wagner. The turn-of-the-century tale unfolds as a
bedside story to two children whose mother is languishing in a hospital (on her bed is a 7-Eleven "Big Gulp" - one of the film's numerous throwaway incongruities).
It details a friendship that develops into hatred between two plague victims in the austere Gimli Hospital: Einar the Lonely (Kyle McCulloch) and the mole-like Gunnar (Michael Gottli), who exchange memories and fish bark as a bevy of nurses (Louise Brooks-ish beauties, one and all) tends to them - lathering their lesions with dead seagulls.
This is a movie of "ebony moonbeams," as the script says, and dialogue (what little there is) that reads like a purple potboiler ("a fevered gall bladder made him absent-minded and prone to weird delusions"). It's a movie in which a minstrel in blackface shoots ducks out of the sky from his hospital bed, a movie in which water nymphs perform a synchronized swimming ballet, a movie with angels and Indians, bejeweled scissors and bagpiping Highlanders.
It's Dadaesque, it's Daliesque, it's delirious, mysterious and profoundly strange.
Tales From the Gimli Hospital is being shown midnights at the Roxy Screening Room, every Friday and Saturday.
TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL * * *
Produced by Snyder; written, directed and photographed by Guy Maddin; distributed by Circle/Cinephile.
Running time: 1 hour, 13 mins.
Einar the Lonely - Kyle McCulloch
Gunnar - Michael Gottli
Snjofridur - Angela Heck
Amma - Margaret-Anne MacLeod
Fjola - Heather Neale
Parent's guide: unrated (midnight movie weirdness)
Showing at: Roxy Screening Rooms