Directed by Guy Maddin

 reviewed by Richard Malloy ( aka "Al Brown" )



DVD produced by Kino On Video Ó2000

100 minutes

16mm, color, 1.33:1


Extra Features: Commentary Track by Guy Maddin and George Toles (scriptwriter); Documentary, Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, directed by Noam Gonick



(NOTE: The following review reveals plot details occurring within the first 35 minutes of the narrative, but these should not detract from your enjoyment of the film.)


Guy Maddin’s dizzily delirious 1992 film, Careful, has been called a pro-repression fable, a masterpiece of deadpan comic timing, a period piece evoking a time and place that never existed, and a Ricola ad gone horribly, horribly wrong.1  Utterly unique and yet evocative of myriad influences, Careful is a truly bizarre concoction created from the plundered relics of cinematic history and the dark attics of dreams. 

Enslaved by suffocating taboo and the constant threat of avalanche, the citizens of the mountain village of Tolzbad lead hushed, wary lives.  So zealous is their chariness that even the vocal chords of the animals are surgically snipped to avert potential calamity.  A dog barks furiously, and yet all one can hear is the unsettling clacking of teeth.   Honking geese are shot out of the sky with silently firing rifles.  Rambunctious children are gagged and bound to chairs to thwart the dire consequences of their reverberating outbursts.  Fragile glassware trembles and tinkles upon shuddering cupboard shelves, as though perpetually teetering on the brink of some terrible catastrophe. 

Then, there is always the avalanche, when the snow relaxes its grip on the slope and is dragged downward under its own crushing weight.  The slightest sound or any false move by anyone can trigger these deadly landslides and sweep us all into oblivion!  Be vigilant! 

Barely repressed beneath the snowy peaks and hushed propriety of Tolzbad lies a swamp of unnatural urges, carnal and incestuous longings, ripening jealousies and simmering sibling rivalries.  The slumbering, love-struck Johann dreams steamy visions of his newly betrothed, the buxom Klara.  But at the very height of his fervent reverie, Klara’s youthful visage is overcome by the deliriously unsettling image of Johann’s doting mother, Zenaida – a vision that will haunt Johann in his waking hours, a feverish preoccupation, its urgency growing by the day.  Klara fares no better, as she longs desperately for her father, Herr Trotta, but he favors the charms of her sister, Sieglinde.  Johann’s brother, Grigorss, greets the news of his pending nuptials with quiet consternation, grimly crushing a handful of swizzle sticks as he silently broods.  All the while, the forgotten brother, Franz, a debilitated mute confined to a creepy, cobwebby attic, is visited by the emanation of their deceased father, a double-blinded, former swan-feeder with warnings from beyond.  Like Teiresias, the blind oracle in Oedipus Rex who perceives the terrible truth unseen by all others, he frantically beseeches Franz to prevent Johann from acting upon his shameful desires before it is too late... 

The passions grow on high mountains and fling their red blossoms to the storm.  Perhaps the boy has mountain fever!  It begins innocently enough with dreams of mountains, a peak round as a plump knee, or a crest like a frosted bosom white as goat’s milk.  Who can resist the temptation to climb? 

Unable to shake the terrible urges brought about in the delirium of dreams, Johann embarks upon a treacherous course.  After placing his mother in a deep sleep with the Tolzbadian equivalent of a Rohypnol cocktail and snipping off her bright blue bodice with a pruning shears, He plants a tender and tremulous kiss upon her fragrant bosom… and is immediately and violently overcome by the overwhelming guilt of his terrible transgression.  As Oedipus gouged out his own eyes, Johann scorches his guilty lips with a white hot ember, snips off his fingers with the pruning shears, and pitches himself headlong off a convenient precipice.  

Thus ends Part 1 of Careful, Guy Maddin’s tragicomic melodrama of irrepressible desires and earnest goofiness. 

The Look of Careful

Inspired by German expressionist cinema and the 'mountain films' of Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl,2 Maddin originally envisioned Careful in black-and-white.  He was urged instead by his producer, Greg Klymkiw, to undertake his first color film.  Further inspired by a chance viewing of Paul Whiteman’s The King of Jazz, Maddin settled upon two-strip Technicolor3, thereby limiting his palette to two, often clashing colors at any given time, with the occasional burst of pale yellow adding a third.  According to Maddin, the two-strip Technicolor was always producing odd artifacts, and indeed it very often appears to produce three, four, or more colors at once.  The film also frequently retreats into a single-tinted monochrome, such as the red-bathed opening montage and the cooler hues of the final act. 

Colored light glows, blooms, smears, and refracts through a gauzy haze of gelled and filtered lenses.  Saturated blues, oranges, violets, reds, greens and ambers bathe the images.  When the film was digitally transferred for DVD, Maddin had to resist the urge to ask the colorist to spin the saturation knob back and forth to make the colors ‘literally tremble rather than just glow’.  What we see, however, is a faithful representation of the original film, an often beautiful but also unsettling marriage of hues, helping to create and sustain the ‘visceral unease underlying the parody, irony and humor.’  With its stark, expressionistic silhouettes and garish color schemes, its artificial sets and anachronistic use of intertitles and irises, Careful seems to have somehow transported The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the land of Oz. 

The wonderful digital transfer for Kino’s DVD edition was overseen and approved by Maddin.  A few flecks, several specks and one small squiggly that quickly works its way across the upper left corner of the screen might be said to mar what otherwise would have been a perfect source element.  But considering the extraordinary efforts to produce an ‘antiqued’ look and sound, one wonders how such nits could truly be construed as distracting (or even unintentional).  This is a wholly unique looking film, not one that lends itself well as a reference disc for your video equipment, but rest assured... it’s supposed to look that way! 

The Sound of Careful

Boasting what is reputedly the largest library of ambient crackle recordings in the world (if not the only one), Guy Maddin has at his disposal every imaginable variant of optical static from which he creates his signature soundscapes.  Waves of hiss, along with various pops and scratches, create a charming acoustic patina and infuse his films with an odd otherworldliness derived as much from a childhood spent tuning in exotic stations in the strange nighttime world of AM radio as from watching old movies. 

Uproariously purple or oddly deadpan, the faux-profound dialog of a Guy Maddin film is every bit as characteristic as the thick blanket of ambience upon which it’s embroidered.   George Toles, longtime Maddin collaborator and co-screenwriter for Careful, claims the particular style of the dialog in Careful was based largely on Herman Melville’s novel, Pierre.  Explaining his attraction to Pierre, Toles notes, “In addition to the parody – at one level, it’s a send-up of domestic fiction – there is an authentic hysteria at the heart of the novel that the satire never effaces.” 

The dialog is very obviously looped and possesses a warm, round clarity strangely detached from its thick bed of ambient noise.  Maddin remarks, “I think people presume I only create the most crackly, degenerated sound possible, but I want the words to be as clear as the mountain air.  I want them to have that old theatrical part-talkie enunciation – they end up floating somewhere a few feet in front of the performer’s lips.”  This odd disconnect creates a curious artificiality that seems to bracket each pronouncement with the aural equivalent of quotation marks, like some sort of post-production irony enhancer. 

At times, waves of ambient crackle wash over the spoken words, drowning them out, and sending us briefly back to the silent era – a device Maddin dubs ‘SelectoSound’.  “Sometimes you don't even need to hear the words coming out of a person's mouth. When someone is clearly saying 'Goodbye darling, I love you, take care,' I just have lips moving and nothing coming out, because the pantomime is sufficient. [The audience] fills in the blanks.”5  

Providing the final aural touch is John McCulloch’s wonderfully goofy score.  With its wailing choruses, brassy outbursts, and thick taffy-like progressions, it is very often a spot-on, spoofy homage to the Teutonic tones of Wagner and Herrmann.  Add some dreamy, cascading whole-tone scales and a few perfectly constructed, early-cinema style cues, and you have the ideal compliment to Maddin’s kooky Germanic plunderings. 

The audio is very nicely rendered on this disc in DD-2.0 (mono), with each layer of the complex soundscape well represented in the mix.  Feel free to turn it up as loud as you like, loud enough to distinguish even the faintest whisper of hiss, and you’ll be happy to discover that the dialog never becomes harshly sibilant, and the music never disintegrates into a mushy gruel. 

The Documentary

In addition to the very engaging commentary track featuring Maddin and Toles (excerpted throughout this review), Kino On Video has included on this disc the award-winning documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, by fellow Winnipeg Film Group director, Noam Gonick.  Shot during the production of Maddin’s 1997 film, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, his first of feature-length since Careful, the documentary is a chronological journey through the films of Guy Maddin and a strange and wonderful window into the world of the Winnipeg film community.6

 Both cheerful and morose, and often simultaneously so, Maddin speaks about his successes and failures, his childhood, his films, his phobias and his neurological disorder (which he prefers to leave untreated).  We see him on the set of Ice Nymphs, at home in bed with the flu, and in Bill Sciak’s barber chair receiving what can only be described as an extraordinarily ill-suiting haircut. 

We learn that Maddin & Co. studied film by spending weekends at the home of Steven Snyder, professor at the University of Manitoba, who would bring films from the university library for the cinematic edification of the Winnipeg boys.  More precisely, Snyder would project the invariably poor, 16mm prints on his office wall at the university, record them with a Betacam, and then dub them to VHS for home viewing.  These very distressed copies, essentially hand-shot bootlegs of bad university library prints further compromised by dubbing, would form the basis of Maddin’s film education.  

As with many of Maddin’s often dubious stories, one is occasionally left to wonder which are true and which are truly apocryphal.  One can’t help but perceive a certain amount of self-mythologizing when listening to him speak, an inclination he likely derived from Greg Klymkiw, his famously puffery-prone producer/promoter.  In what may be a rare moment of true candor, Klymkiw, seated at a ridiculously unkempt desk and looking not unlike a bearded, Yukon-version of Roger Ebert, speaks wistfully about growing up in Winnipeg, “I just sort of remember endless, endless days of slacking... it’s no surprise that we’d end up eventually making films.  I just think that’s what slacking leads to.” 

In addition to the interviews with Maddin and fellow members of the Winnipeg Film Group, there are extensive clips from all his feature-length films, including Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. It’s the ideal introduction to Maddin, Winnipeg, and the wholly unique films this strange alchemy of person and place has produced. 


In 1995, Guy Maddin became the youngest filmmaker to ever be awarded the Medal for Lifetime Achievement at the Telluride Film Festival.  Hardly a household name, but well-known in the world of avant-garde film, Maddin’s work is simultaneously rarified and accessible.  For every precious or exquisite touch, there is also broad comedy and whimsy.  For every dark urge and black irony, there is also warmth and true sentiment.  And everything flows from the ancient attics of dreams and the plundered relics of cinematic history. 

 “In the future, I hope there'll be these dusty old second-hand video stores where people might find my films and go 'Wow, are these ever rich and strange!;’ not 'Wow, are these ever hokey!'  Of course, you can't demand that people perceive you in a certain way; you just have to wait.  But I have a hunch that time might be kind to my movies.” –Guy Maddin


 1 “a pro-repression fable” Guy Maddin; “a masterpiece of deadpan comic timing; a period piece evoking a time and place that never existed” Mike Rubin (see link below in Footnote 5); “a Ricola ad gone horribly, horribly wrong” Will Robinson Sheff (IMDb user comment).

2The German ‘mountain film’:  see, e.g., the films of Arnold Fanck (some starring a young Leni Riefenstahl): Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929); Der Heilige Berg (1926); and Der Berg des Schicksals (1924); see also Riefenstahl’s Das Blaue Licht (1932). 

3Though described on the box as “shot in bright, vivid color reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor,” Maddin speaks quite literally about using this very film stock in the commentary.  The reviewer pleads ignorance and defers to Maddin’s comments, with the mild admonition that he’s probably completely untrustworthy.

 4The following exchange between Johann and Klara, as Klara envisions a lifetime of a particular kind of wedded bliss, is typical.  Imagine these lines delivered in the hilariously over-enunciated, hammy tones of the era of the part-talkie:

KLARA: Look at that butterfly – how innocent it is!  Let us strive for purity in everything, even after our wedding!

JOHANN: Purity sickens me.  You can be pure for both of us.

KLARA: Joha...?!

JOHANN: Klara!  Suppose that the sounds of angels singing hymns to our virginal love was in reality a cry from the deepest pit of hell!

KLARA: What are you saying?!  You frighten me!

JOHANN: Forgive my raving.  I have not been sleeping well.

 5From an interview with Mike Rubin: CLICK HERE

 6Website of the Winnipeg Film Group:  CLICK HERE