It's not easy to describe the lurid pleasures of Guy Maddin's signature film style, but they're pretty obvious in even his short films. He combines the ambient effects of films from the era of transition from silent to early talkies, and he crafts extravagantly melodramatic narratives that explore relationships distorted through epic suffering (orphans, amputees, etc.), or the strange appropriation of epic suffering. Archangel, his second film, is a prime example. Maddin has commented that it's a story about people trying to continue in quests for love long after all efforts have been exhausted or wasted. You'd be well into the movie before you guessed that. He appropriates the setting of World War I in the Russian arctic, where soldiers battle on, unaware that the war actually ended — all as merely a metaphor, but one that saturates the film with misery (though it's not visually gruesome). Hence two men, both suffering memory loss from exposure to mustard gas and trench warfare, end up married to the same woman. One (who also has lost a leg) is convinced she is his original wife (he forgot she died), and the other has forgotten he's married to her. It's insanely darkly comic, but played out in overwrought melodrama. (In the opening clip above, a commanding officer stripping sailors of alcohol forces the soldier to give up the ashes of his wife, not realizing that it's not booze he's hiding in the urn.)
Later movies like Brand Upon the Brain and The Saddest Music in the World are wonderful, and perhaps easier points of entry to Maddin's catalog because they're not as steeped in the madness of war. Archangel is brilliant, but enjoying it is really about his technique and obtuse storytelling more than a straight narrative. It screens at Zeitgeist at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.