Director: Guy Maddin
Year: 1992
Country: Canada

Guy Maddin is one of Canada’s most celebrated directors, and also a personal favourite of mine. It’s hard to know quite what to make of Maddin’s films. the blurb on my box-set calls them “incestuous psychodramas”, and “hallucinatory and hilarious fever-dreams”. He’s famous for his surreal, twisted stories and settings, and his use of techniques from the silent and early sound eras of filmmaking. Careful is his third feature film, and was the first to be filmed in colour.

Maddin’s films are known for reviving long-forgotten genres, and Careful is no exception. It’s made in the style of a bergfilme – a melodramatic story about the conflict between man and nature, with a mountain setting. Bergfilmes were popular in 1920s Germany, but have mostly disappeared since. Careful was shot on grainy 16mm film stock, with rich, lurid colours that imitate the look of early technicolour, or the tinting methods of the silent era.

The opening sequence is filmed in a deep, luminescent sepia.

The film is set in the fictional town of Tolzbad, nestled high on a snow-covered mountain. Tolzbad is under constant threat of avalanches, which can be triggered by a loud noise or even an expression of strong emotion. Residents live their entire lives suppressing their feelings, wary of losing control and bringing disaster. Twice yearly, the townspeople cower in their homes as migrating geese pass overhead and risk causing catastrophe.

The set design and cinematography are vintage yet other-wordly.

The protagonists of Careful are the brothers Johann and Grigorss, butlers-in-training for the reclusive Count Knotkers. Johann is engaged to local girl Klara, for whom Grigorss harbours a secret affection. But Johann is struggling with an Oedipus complex, even while Klara wrestles with a similar attraction to her father. Like the town in my Australian entry The Dressmakereveryone in Tolzbad has something to hide – whether it’s the third brother Franz who lives in Johann and Grigorss’s attic, or their mother’s past love for the Count himself.

Johann and Grigorss attending Tolzbad’s Butler school.

Careful is a film about repressed urges, traumatic memories, forbidden love, and violent revenge. Incestuous love quadrangles and outbursts of long-repressed emotion play out against the backdrop ripped from an alien fairytale. It’s told in a hazy, flickering format with a schizophrenic visual style and a macabre sense of humour. Maddin revels in this kind of material – his films are utterly bizarre and original, disturbingly dreamlike, and enchantingly surreal.


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