In retrospect, I was being redundant when I described last year’s The Twentieth Century as feeling like “watching Guy Maddin direct an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch that stumbles out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.” That assessment still rings true, but I could’ve lightened my wordcount by just saying it felt like “watching a Guy Maddin movie”. I’m used to seeing playful flashes of violence & vulgarity in Guy Maddin’s work, but something about Matthew Rankin’s kink-soaked debut doubled down on both in a way that really spoke to my juvenile sensibilities. It turns out my oversight was in comparing The Twentieth Century to the statelier, well-respected Maddin of recent years, the one who’ll interject a Sparks music video about a man’s addiction to “derrieres” in the middle of his narratives but will stop short of fixing his camera on an ejaculating cactus for a minutes-long visual gag. Guy Maddin was once a young button-pusher himself, though, something that should have been obvious to me even before I made the time to watch his own early-career kink comedy Cowards Bend the Knee. It turns out I was just a few years too late in my Guy Maddin appreciation to catch him in his prime as a juvenile provocateur.
In Cowards Bend the Knee (or The Blue Hands), Guy Maddin reimagines (and improves!) the silent horror classic The Hands of Orlac as a kinky sex comedy about hairdressers, prostitution, abortion, hockey, and revenge. Instead of a morally simplistic body horror about a concert pianist who becomes murderous when his hands are surgically replaced with a serial killer’s, Maddin abstracts his version in a Russian nesting doll story structure that’s long been familiar to his features. We start with scientists examining a sperm specimen under a microscope, revealing in close-up that the sperm cells are hockey players competing on ice. The star player is Guy Maddin as “Guy Maddin,” the team captain and son of the distinguished announcer who calls the games. He’s pulled aside from his championship victory celebrations by a distraught girlfriend who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, which leads the couple to a hair salon & brothel that triples as an illegal backroom abortion clinic. Maddin leaves his girlfriend mid-abortion for the madame’s beautiful daughter, who will not let him touch her body until her father’s death is avenged. Her plan for retribution, of course, involves her father’s severed hands being surgically attached to her new lover’s body to guide his way. Also, his old girlfriend is now a ghost who works at the salon.
Like all of Guy Maddin’s movies, Cowards Bend the Knee is deliberately aged & battered to look like an authentic curio from the earliest years of silent cinema. Images often stutter & repeat in harsh jags as if the projector is struggling to feed the deteriorating film from reel to reel. That antiqued image quality offers a great contrast to the shameless sexual fetishism of the film’s winding Greek tragedy plot. Despite its title’s mention of legs, this is a film that’s fixated on the perversity of hands in particular. From the more obvious kink acts like incest, fisting, and female-dominant wrestling to the unexpected eroticism of a haircut, the film presents the shape & use of hands as if they were the filthiest appendages on our bodies. And maybe they are. Maddin even accentuated the film’s sexual transgressions by premiering it as an art instillation where viewers watched each six-minute chapter as individual vignettes through key holes, as if peering into a bedroom (or a sex dungeon). It’s all very silly and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also surprisingly thoughtful & genuine in its presentation of sexual fetishism and the way its magnetic pull can lead you to making desperate, self-destructive decisions.
The Saddest Music in the World taught me that Guy Maddin is a goofball prankster despite his work’s formalist exterior. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary taught me that he’s a bit of a luddite with a loving eye for the tones & textures of German Expressionist horror. The Forbidden Room taught me that he works best in short-form vignettes that pulls the audience deeper into exponentially smaller worlds. All of those aspects of his work were already firmly set in stone as early as Cowards Bend the Knee, but that one still taught me something about him that made me fall even further in love with his art: he’s also a filthy pervert.