Review – ‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ (2003)

2020 has seen the worldwide embracement of online film festivals, for obvious reasons. Cinephiles who have been unable to return to the cinema (and those who are, doing it safely) can now rekindle their love for festivals from the comfort of their own home. Although these festivals cannot be attended in person, the excitement of exploring pieces that are unfamiliar never fades.

This is why I was so thrilled to hear about Matchbox Cineclub’s Tales From Winnipeg Festival, the first programme for their new online cinema platform. Starting this weekend, their schedule celebrates the works of Guy Maddin and other cult classics such as Crime Wave, directed by Sam Raimi. I’ve never before seen any pieces by Maddin, but as someone who is intrigued by early cinema aesthetics, I knew that it would be an exciting experience. Re-released with a new score by Ela Orleans, approved by the director himself and commissioned by the Matchbox team, Cowards Bend the Knee explores primal instinct and the lengths people will go for love and lust. It was far from what I was expecting. 

From the first few images, we see erotic hand gestures, followed by an intertitle ‘THE SPERM PLAYERS’, referring to the Winnipeg Maroons (hockey team) in the following clips. An old man is displayed looking through a kinetoscope, an old piece of equipment used to watch short clips of “moving” images in the early 20th century. These would be found at local ‘peep shows’, and harks back to the stereotype of the old pervert, a common character in various silent film era pieces. Maddin offers the audience a taste of the old age, but does so in the early noughties without the confines of censorship that others before him had to work around. 

Maddin has called this piece a semi-autobiographical blend with fiction, and many references to Euripedes’ play Medea can be examined throughout. With the protagonist and star player of the team named after the director (played by Darcy Fehr), we follow the deterioration of his relationship with Veronica (Amy Stewart), as he suffers from a head injury that causes him to lose his memory. She is taken to night clinic for an abortion done by Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin), while Guy has wandered off with Meta (Melissa Dionisio), entranced by her beauty. The fast-paced editing is disillusioning, and the heavy use of percussion sounds rather primal, as Veronica is surrounded by men gawking at her, legs spread. While they are dressed up in suits and seem to belong to high society, their instincts are primitive, their elegance and financial abundance are a facade. Maddin sheds light on how we are all animals underneath, and once again, echos the hidden pervasive behaviour that corrupts higher society.

Maddin’s emphasis on psycho-sexual elements has been likened to other creators such as David Lynch, imagery that is pervasive at a glance but is truly telling of internal conflicts surrounding desire that humans face. Maddin explores paternal and maternal affection alike, examining how the lines blur between love and feelings of lust, shown through Meta’s deep love for her father Chas (Henry Mogatas) and her resistance to Guy’s advances, stating she will only sleep with him when her father’s death is avenged. Stories of vengeance such as this never seem to end well, and justice is served to those who do and equally don’t deserve it. 

Stylistically, Maddin’s work is rich, and his characters otherworldly. He is a director I would love to pick the brains of, and his work is wholeheartedly his own creation, near impossible to be confused with any other director working today. The editing technique is choppy and fast paced throughout, mirroring Guy’s delusional state of mind, and appears non-linear and dream-like. Although it is a piece I am not rushing to watch again, it is one that I’m sure will linger in my mind for a while.

The season runs online at talesfromwinnipeg.eventive.org from August 28th to September 1st, with a new film premiering each day and remaining available for the duration of the programme, alongside lots of bonus content. Tickets are available everywhere, with the exception of North America. Head to their website for more details.

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