For his latest piece of experimental camp cinema, the Canadian director Guy Maddin -- who made Tales from the Gimli Hospital and The Saddest Music in the World -- relates an "autobiographical" tale of an eponymous alter ego who plays rough-and-tumble hockey (is there any other kind?) for the Winnipeg Maroons.
We meet the "Guy Maddin" of Cowards Bend the Knee on the ice, where his first head-knock of the game leads to a bench-clearing brawl, and where the second one comes from his girlfriend, Veronica, who reveals that she's pregnant. So ends "Chapter One -- Sperm Players," with Guy (Darcy Fehr) standing naked by the Allan Cup trophy, ignoring a plea to visit his dying mother, and thinking only of how to get his girlfriend's little visitor out of his life.
This leads to "Chapter Two -- Squeeze of the Hand," where Guy's eyes light on Meta, the half-Asian daughter of the proprietress at a shadowy clinic/whorehouse. Meta has, let's just say, issues of her own, and she won't let Guy copulate with her (atop a pile of hockey gloves) until he avenges her father's murder. She also has the perfect name for a character in a film that deconstructs narrative and humanity with its bleak-cum-risible story of lonely venal people who populate a decaying amoral world of lurid desire.
Cowards Bend the Knee is quasi-silent, shot slightly in the style of early surrealist masters like Cocteau and Buñuel -- or like old porno movies, take your pick -- but still with ample modern technique to create its twitchy, grainy, washed-out, black-and-white images. Maddin employs a few sound effects throughout his movie: the hum of the crowd during a game, the crack of a hockey stick against a puck, the bark of a dog. But mostly we hear only his somber musical score, populated by harps, violins, pianos and a swelling orchestra, just like an old silent melodrama. And it's not enough for Maddin to tell us where a new chapter begins. He's always careful to tell us where the current one ends.
On the one hand, Maddin almost dares you to figure out the convoluted semiotics of his 60-minute film. On the other hand, could it be as easy as his closing title card, where he chastises "husbands afraid to face the burdens -- nay, the terrors -- of living with wives and families"? The "nay," I think, tips his hand. Or is this film a veiled psychological exposé of Maddin's own struggle with domestic responsibility? Do enquiring minds really want to know? Maddin seems to be interested in hands, which play a role in the plot, and also in penises, of which we see a fair number in Cowards Bend the Knee, once even in closeup. So maybe he's exploring sexuality and masculinity. Or maybe it's just some Canadian thing, eh?