Cowards Bend the Knee
Directed by Guy Maddin

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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A man uses a microscope to examine a glob of semen and therein discovers a hockey arena where a team, the Maroons, is playing. One of the members of this team, Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), subsequently takes his girlfriend, Veronica (Amy Stewart), to a beauty salon that doubles at night as a brothel so that she can have an abortion performed there. Unfortunately, the procedure does not go well, and Veronica is fatally injured. While she is bleeding to death, Guy meets Meta (Melissa Dionisio), the seductive daughter of the madam, Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), and falls for her. Meta, however, will not let him touch her until he has killed Liliom, who murdered Meta's father, Chas (Henry Mogatas), who had himself been both a player for the Maroons and a hairdresser at the salon. Meta then asks a doctor to transplant her father's hands (dyed blue from the chemicals he used as a hairdresser) onto Guy's arms, and he pretends to do so (in fact, he only paints Guy's own hands blue and says that he has performed the operation). Now, more than half crazed, Guy, though he is falling out of love with Meta and in love with Veronica's ghost, goes on a killing spree.

Guy Maddin's silent Cowards Bend the Knee visually resembles a film from the first years of cinema, but it is not, by any means, a mere pastiche. It is a genuinely original, consistently captivating work.


The story Maddin relates is typical of those he prefers. It is overwrought, melodramatic, and filled with a variety of weird details. He presents an intense, lurid world of ardent emotions, burning sexuality, surreal confusion, and excessive violence. The effect is feverish and mesmerizing. The director reveals how Guy is overcome with lust for Meta, how the man (seemingly possessed by some spirit residing in Chas's putative hands) goes on to commit murders for her sake, and how, when that woman has his hands cut off, Guy sinks into despair and brings about a bizarre private apocalypse. The viewer, though he will surely be captivated by the events of this wild, savage tale, is likely to find himself even more immersed in the movie as a result of the various peculiar details Maddin has included in it. Besides the odd conceit that the whole of the story occurs within a drop of ejaculate, the director incorporates into his tale a ghost, a wax museum in the rafters of a hockey arena, a match with a Soviet hockey team, a maple leaf shaped pool of blood formed by that draining from Veronica's genitals after her botched abortion, and more. Even the realistic elements of the film, such as a scene in which a prostitute services a client while her baby lies beside her, add to its poignancy.

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Happily, Cowards Bend the Knee is as appealing visually as it is narratively. Maddin, as he often does, draws on film techniques from the 1920s and earlier, thereby creating a rarefied spectacle that conjures up some magical, often dimly seen black and white world distinct from that of ordinary experience. By so presenting this unique universe, one with which the viewer can engage as it is in itself, Maddin allows the emotions of the inhabitants of this place to be experienced in all their raw purity. What is more, there is not a moment of the movie during which the viewer will not be bewitched by the images themselves.

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Cowards Bend the Knee is a worthy addition to Maddin's oeuvre. It is thoroughly enjoyable, visually and narratively.

Review by Keith Allen

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