Guy Maddin's frozen reverie on Canada's "Gateway to the West" is barely defrosted by the warmth of the projector bulb. My Winnipeg opens with a montage of newsreel and a bit of canned cheer in the form of the '50s booster ballad "Wonderful Winnipeg." Soon, however, the filmmaker is conjuring up his own "snowy, sleepy Winnipeg," a place of eternal winter and endless night. Not only is it the world's coldest city, Maddin claims, it also has 10 times as many somnambulists as any place on earth.
A movie of moody reflection and dreamlike condensation, My Winnipeg is shot mainly in black and white, punctuated with near-subliminal intertitles, frame-filling fake snow flurries, and the melancholy sounds of trains crossing the prairie. The filmmaker provides a turgid stream of consciousness, babbling on in an urgent, incantatory mock-travelogue style — with recurring shots of his stand-in (Darcy Fehr, who played Maddin in Cowards Bend the Knee) riding the midnight special, hunched over asleep, head down on the seat tray.
Convinced that he must leave the city "now!", Maddin instead finds himself back in childhood, living in a frame house fronted by his mother's beauty salon — a house cloudy with hair spray and constructed so that, lying in bed, he hears "every word of conversation that roiled out of the gynocracy" on the ground floor. Restaging his youth with an ex-girlfriend's dog standing in for the family's "long, long-dead Chihuahua," the filmmaker might be reimagining The Glass Menagerie as a performance piece in which he inhabits brother, sister, and gentleman caller — every character except the mother, "a force as powerful as all the trains in Manitoba." In a brilliant bit of film-fetish casting, she's played by Ann Savage — the unforgettable actress who, six decades ago, lit up the obscurity of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour with the scary intensity of her performance.
Making his own detours, Maddin transforms Winnipeg into a city of mystery. No less than Feuillade's Paris, this is a dream dump of labyrinthine alleyways, mysterious monuments, and peculiar landmarks. The world's smallest park is a single tree; the sole respite from the city's flatness is the landfill mountain known as Garbage Hill. The local pageants are even stranger: On "If Day," 5,000 uniformed Nazis stage a mock invasion and rename Winnipeg "Himmlerstadt." Most arcane are the hockey rites — and also the most personal: Maddin claims to have been born in the locker room of the Winnipeg Maroons' now-demolished home.
My Winnipeg is Maddin's best filmmaking since the not-dissimilar confessional bargain-basement phantasmagoria, Cowards Bend the Knee (2003). The editing is dense; the action is fluid. Just as actual newsreels blend with the filmmaker's expert reconstructions, so local history — the 1919 general strike and a racetrack fire, both depicted in silhouette animation — merges with extravagant invention. The track disaster creates a temporary Guernica as the horses stampede and, contorted with panic, are frozen in the snow. Similarly, half-remembered family traumas are explicated by imaginary television shows. (Ledge Man, which stars the actor playing Maddin, is a half-hour drama in which every episode ends with the hero's mother talking him back from suicide.) "Who is alive anymore?" Maddin wonders as the movie wends toward closure. "It's so hard to remember."