When we say a filmmaker is in another league, we typically mean it in a good way––they’re a cut above the rest. But when we say it about Guy Maddin, it doesn’t imply quality one way or the other. There is simply no one doing what Guy Maddin is doing, whether you love it, hate it, or don’t care about it at all. Maddin’s work is so pioneer, so beguiling, so unrecognizable, so un-distributable that if you’re not doing your own film-history research you likely haven’t come across it. Look up a single image from any of his films and you’ll understand. Maddin films make Eraserhead look like Forrest Gump.

That said: he wants for nothing in reputation, an absolute legend in the avant-garde, experimental, and adjacent cinema scenes. Maddin is the Spielberg of pure art film, the wizard of 19th-century techniques in the 20th century (before von Trier!), a 42-year veteran of the craft, an installation, Internet, and performance artist with as much to show for himself there as anywhere else. Harvard even invited him to a coveted lecturer position for a time, vanguard of absurdism that he is.

If you do know the longtime Canadian experimentalist’s filmography, then you know nothing seems less likely than Rumours, his grand, Cannes competition-grade entrance into (supposedly) normcore feature filmmaking which, when discussing Maddin, encompasses everything inside and most things outside Schrader’s Tarkovsky Ring. Even less likely is the idea that Maddin would take on modern, real-world events, the film opening on the press podium of the G7 summit, albeit one led by slightly fictionalized, more blatantly vapid versions of the leaders they represent. 

A likelier Maddin-esque setting would be a somehow-ancient submarine in an infinite ocean, or a vast tropicana with erupting volcanoes, or the pits of competitive carnie life, or Winnipeg. If you’re familiar with him, you’re also not expecting any known actors not named Mathieu Amalric or Udo Kier. Certainly not A-listers like Cate Blanchett and Alicia Vikander, or vetted Hollywood role players such as Charles Dance, their presence the most “normal” thing about the movie. Alas, this is a new wave of Maddin: still outlandish but with a tinge of approachability, less German Expressionist circus and more hysterical, unabated diplomatic masturbation. 

Co-directed by regular collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson––the trio’s third feature together and first in seven years––and written solely by Evan, the film has a very simple plot. After fucking off to a gazebo to witlessly discuss the world’s most crushing issues, an apocalypse strikes, leaving the self-aggrandizing G7 leaders in a literal haze of dense fog as they wander through the woods trying to find out what happened, how to get back, and what they need to do to fix all the problems that preceded and have now been caused by it.

Blanchett plays the Chancellor of Germany, Hilda Ortmann, a clear Angela Merkel clone as mirrored as most country’s representatives tend to be of their real-life counterparts. For example: Charles Dance is an unveiled Biden, a near-spitting image of the American President, too withered to hold a conversation without taking a nap, generally unaware of his surroundings, hilariously (when it’s not real life) along for the ride in what is arguably the least along-for-the-ride job in the world. Nikki Amuka-Bird, as British Prime Minister Cardosa Dewindt, is the standout, however: nearly every line-reading a sharp incision into British political turmoil in the form of ludicrous self-owns.

There is absolutely no respect for these people, and rightfully so. Rumours is a film that refuses to take world leaders (or itself) seriously––even until the final seconds––only ever upping the ante of preposterous, if-not-tiring turns. It leans into the farce of it all to the nth degree, portraying our world leaders as very well-spoken, perfunctory idiots. At its zenith, Maddin has them discuss the diplomacy of how best to flirt with a 7-year-old girl via text in order to figure out whether she is actually an AI pedophile-chat-bot trying to Dateline elected government officials.

Some of the stranger, seemingly more unique elements of Rumours are actually callbacks to or continued themes from Maddin’s past work. A giant brain pulsing in the woods that the Secretary-General of the European Commission (Vikander) is romantically obsessed with recalls the filmmaker’s career obsession with the brain, how we think about it, how we use it, and how we don’t. Other Maddin brains have made appearances in The Forbidden Room and, of course, Brand Upon the Brain!

Likewise, the green fog that defines Rumours‘ aesthetic––and to which the movie unfortunately loses its pacing and composure to––has been on Maddin’s mind for so long that he and the Johnsons made a feature called The Green Fog in 2017. What this loses to the fog it only partially makes up in cinematography and guts––the former rank it among the finest, most original-looking films at Cannes, while the latter give it the needed punch to really take its subjects to task.

When the clowns finally start discussing real fixes to the global issues they’ve hardly touched on over the course of two hours, their “solutions” come in the form of apolitical cool-isms, like distracting the global population by announcing that the Olympics will take place every three years instead of four. Rumours is hilarious, using dark humor and ironic melodrama to curry its comedy, such as when it drops soapy, sexy jazz into the middle of a gravely unserious moment or announces that the theme of this year’s summit is “regret.” 

In fact, it’s so funny for the first hour and last 20 minutes that one can’t help wondering what the hell happened with the 40 in-between––a frustrating, unfunny slog of a middle section that’s so hard to sit through it will unfortunately keep many from reaching the brilliant, bizarro finale. This might be Maddin’s first (barely) distributable feature, but it’s still busier and more convoluted than anything you’ll see in 2024. It’s just hard to say whether that absurdity is worth the sit this time. No doubt audiences will be split.

Rumours premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Bleecker Street Films.

Grade: C+

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