By Alexander Ferrando
Beginning with a grandmother in vaguely Old World dress who recounts to her grandchildren an equally Old World tale of peril and fantasy, Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed is a beautiful and rousing reworking of the Canadian filmmaker’s 1988 feature-length debut. For his Performa 11 Commission, the first given to a filmmaker, Maddin worked with composer Matthew Patton, a group of Icelandic musicians that includes former múm frontwoman Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir and the Aono Jikken Ensemble to create an entirely new score for this magical film. The creaking of a door and splash of water, along with music, and vocals from the enchanting and sprite-like Valtýsdóttir are performed live on stage while the grainy, black-and-white Gimli is simultaneously screened.
Following the eruption of a volcano in the 1870s that made already poor conditions even worse in their native Iceland, a group of migrants set out for the banks of Lake Winnipeg where they would establish the town of Gimli. Within their first two years in Canada, they would experience famine and an outbreak of smallpox, which led to the quarantine of the entire community. Maddin, the progeny of these émigrés, sets his film amid this hardship and gives it, as he said during a live introduction, “a Hollywood treatment,” which, in the hands of Maddin, provides Gimli with the Surrealist fancy of Buñuel and the despair of Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
The film focuses on two afflicted men confined to a ramshackle hospital room. One hallucinatory vision follows the next as the two vie for their nurses’s affections and jealous tensions arise. Gimli coolly moves between silent film slapstick and obscure local legend to crescendo with a mad struggle between the two ailing patients that is only intensified by the live grunts and howls of Valtýsdóttir. Drawing on many types of films and stories, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is wonderfully unique and positively enriched by this musical “reframing.”