“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
‘Archangel’, directed by Guy Maddin in 1990, is a low budget Canadian film set during the aftermath of the First World War in Russia. In 1919, a Canadian soldier, Boles, mourning the death of his lover, Iris, finds himself entangled with a family in the town of Archangel. He falls victim to amnesia and forgets Iris is dead. He then meets a women who he believes is Iris, but who is married to another man, who also suffers from amnesia. After a sequence of encounters and affairs, Boles finds himself unable to reconcile his love for this new woman, and returns to Canada distraught. It’s a pastiche of early cinema, filmed on 16mm in black and white, mostly silent with occasional dubbed dialogue. Maddin takes Eisenstein as a starting point, both in the style, visual identity and the setting, but blends the silent movie motifs (montage, close-ups, episodic narrative) with his later movies (heightened performances, kinetic battle sequences). All of these are twisted by Maddin, however, to support his ironic depiction of history and the oneiric vision of his plot. Maddin uses the imagery of propagandist cinema almost as a self-referential critique of the form. Such it the convoluted and twisted nature of the plot, and the excesses of the actions of the characters, it seems that Maddin is simultaneously offering a nostalgic celebration of early Russian cinema, but also a teasing, parodic criticism of it. In one scene, a disembowelled and dying husband can be seen strangling a Bolshevik using his own recently exposed viscera. This isn’t explicit and seems to have been played for dark laughs, but it does nod a head towards the extremes of what ‘heroism’ actually means during the conflicts and revolutions in the early twentieth century.
Would I recommend it? It’s a unique and fascinating film, and also very funny. I’d be tempted to watch it in conjunction with Eisenstein’s similarly hyperbolic ‘Alexander Nevsky’ or ‘Ivan the Terrible’.