Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) is the type of movie that can cause serious damage to your brain, and I mean that in the best possible way. I saw this at the Brattle Theatre of course. It reminded me of a short film I once saw at the Brattle called My Dad is 100 Years Old, a tribute to Roberto Rosselini. It’s with very good reason that the movies are similar because they’re both directed by Guy Maddin, both narrated by Isabella Rosselini, and both are weird, freaky and silly.
Brand Upon the Brain is filmed in the style of a silent film although Rosselini narrates throughout and there is a full-selection of sound effects and music. Apparently in some cities this movie was performed with a live orchestra, live narration, and most amazingly live Foley artists to create the sound effects. But in Cambridge we got the prerecorded sound track which is good enough. Lots of smoke and scratches on the film add to the eerie, aged effect of the film.
The story is about an adult named Guy Maddin returning to an island where he lived as a child. In a series of flashbacks with a young actor portraying Guy as a boy we learned that Guy grew up in a lighthouse where his parents ran an orphanage. His mother is a tyrant who controls the lives of Guy and his sister Sis and has a creepy Oedipal attraction to Guy. His father is a mad science who drills into the orphans’ and Sis’s heads to draw out their essence in order to create an elixir that keeps mother young.
Enter Wendy Chance, one half of a team of child detectives who arrives on the island to solve the mystery of the brands upon the brain. Guy immediately falls in love with the older girl. Wendy decides its best to secretly disguise herself as her brother Chance to solve the mystery. This doesn’t inhibit Guy who gets a crush on Chance as well. Sis also falls in love with Chance and the love is returned. There’s a lot of kinky sex and creepy horror film stuff until finally Sis and Wendy overthrow the wicked regime. Unfortunately, they become tyrants themselves and exert evil control over the orphans on the island.
This movie succeeds despite – maybe even because of – it’s tendency to be way over the top. The weirdness is just funny and then you feel a little bit creeped out by laughing at it and then you laugh at yourself for being creeped out. I suppose one could view this film as narcassistic and pretentious, but then you just wouldn’t be getting the joke.