In 1992's [i]Careful[/i], Guy Maddin's stylish exuberance, which borrows heavily from the late 1920s and early 1930s German cinema, is in full effect: the vaselined lenses, color-tinted scenes (he even employs garish two-strip Technicolor in several shots), gliding camerawork, expressionistic, purposely artificial production design and lighting (including an iconic shot of characters in silhouette climbing a jagged, vertiginous mountain), intertitles to divide different segments of the film and provide minor exposition, stilted, arch, portentous (and pretentious) dialogue, delivered in a flat, detached style, performances that reference silent-era pantomime in their stiff, formal poses, and an idiosyncratic, crackling sound design. Maddin's anti-naturalist approach is perfectly attuned (for once) with the subject matter, a fever dream plot that turns on suicide, murder, suicide, murder/suicide, and suicide. The melodramatic plot depends on misunderstandings, repressed (and perverse) sexual desires, family secrets, visitations from the dead, necrophilia, unhealthy mother (and father) fixations, hallucinatory fever dreams, and violent retribution (always stylized, mostly offscreen).
Set in a 19th-century Nordic village prone to avalanches (thus the admonition by the narrator to be "careful"), Tolzbad, [i]Careful's[/i] main story line is divided between two protagonists, brothers (Johann and Grigorss) and their mother, Zenaida. A third brother, Franz, lives, isolated, in the attic. Johann and Grigorss attend a butler's school, where the highest honor is to serve Count Knotkers, who lives alone in his mountaintop castle. Johann, betrothed to Klara, finds his repressed sexual desire expressed in a series of dreams, all involving his mother. From there, the plot unravels into an attempted consummation of that desire via love potion, self-mutilation and suicide, and a shift in focus from Johann to Grigorss as the protagonist for the second half of the film.
The hallucinatory fantasies and twisted dreams that haunted Johann apparently contaminate Grigorss and Klara, who, in turn become increasingly irrational and obsessive. Grigorss is elevated to a butler in the count's castle. The castle's design, perhaps mirroring its owner's own neuroses, is shrouded in shadow, its doors constructed at odd, converging angles. The count too seems to be locked in the fever dream of mother obsession, but his freedom has apparently come with her death. But Grigorss' obsession turns on filial duty (to his dead father) and his inability to look beyond his idealized mother and accept her sexuality. Conflicting desires and duties ultimately lead to a knife duel on top of a snow-covered mountain. In probably the best moment in the film, the knife duel is filmed with angular, staccato cross-cuts reminiscent of silent film, but any seriousness associated with the life-or-death duel is quickly undercut by the circumstances shaping the duel: the two men must furiously unbutton each another's greatcoats to get at each other's knives.
With such a convoluted, excessively melodramatic double plot line and eccentric approach to film style, interpretation, and viewing enjoyment comes in two forms: through style alone (and the obvious postmodern homage to a particular era in film history), and/or as almost pure (and delicious) camp. The former makes for limited audience involvement and pleasure, the latter for a great deal more. The stylized sets, the portentous (and pretentious) dialogue, the cod-Freudian symbolism and obsessions all, however, contribute to a sense of ironic detachment.
Of course, that ironic detachment and heightened artificiality means minimal audience participation in the narrative or any kind of emotional connection to the central characters or their objectives. By the end of the film, the audience has become aware that humor dependent on irony and artificiality alone, without audience identification, leads to tedium and disinterest. In essence, Maddin's approach to film style and storytelling has its limits. [i]Careful[/i] then is proof positive that an anti-naturalistic style and ironic detachment can only take the audience so far.