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Maddin's 'Brand' is a dazzling but distant passion play

The work of Guy Maddin represents one of the most brilliantly creative dead ends in modern cinema. In "Brand Upon the Brain! ," he's banging his head on the alleyway brick wall, trying to break through. If it doesn't give way, you should see the film anyway. How often are psychosexual lunacy and classic cinema combined so fiendishly well?

The Winnipeg-based filmmaker creates ersatz oldies: Silent black-and-white fever dreams shot on aging film stock, using antique editing techniques, and so visually battered they could have been mo ldering in film cans in someone's basement for decades. Features like "Cowards Bend the Knee " and "The Saddest Music in the World " (both 2003) are demented and masterful, visions of early Hollywood's collective unconscious erupting onscreen.

They're also very funny and very sad at the same time -- Maddin's nostalgia slices both ways. Despite the campy title, though, "Brand Upon the Brain!" is mostly written in a key of frenetic tragedy, and it's a lesser beast than the earlier films. The lead character is a young boy named Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown ), and no matter how much the director disguises the tale in flickery symbolism, the emotions feel painful and personal.

Young Guy lives in an island lighthouse orphanage run by his bizarrely controlling mother (Gretchen Krich ); dad (Todd Moore ) is in the laboratory doing strange things, while rebellious older Sis (Maya Lawson ) is dallying with the boys. The appearance on the island of plucky teenage sleuth Wendy Hale (Kathe rine E. Scharhon, who's quite wonderful) sends Guy's heart aflutter, but she only has eyes for Sis, to the extent that she disguises herself as her own twin brother, Chance , to woo the girl. Confused, Guy develops a "boy crush" on Chance as well. No one said adolescence was easy, and I haven't even mentioned the vampires.

If this sounds like an erotic nightmare fusion of D.W. Griffith and David Lynch , you're spot - on. Other characters include a waif named Neddie (Kellan Larson ) who killed his baby brother in a freak accident , and Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska ), the leader of the island's lost boys. It's hard to get a bead on any of them, though, because the film's hyper-aggressive visual style starts in high seizure and rarely lets up. Irises, multiple exposures, multiple angles, subliminal imagery -- at times the projector seems on the verge of exploding.

Because "Brand" never modulates its tone, it gets wearying sooner than you'd like. Sadly, the film comes to the Brattle minus the theatrical road show that accompanied it in New York, Chicago, L A , and San Francisco. The touring version featured live musical performances, a "singing castrato," and local celebrity narrators that ran the gamut from Lou Reed to Eli Wallach to Lemony Snicket .

Because we are apparently chopped liver, Boston (and other cities) get a composed score and Maddin muse Isabella Rossellini narrating the story's 12 chapters. Maybe the Brattle should just turn off the sound and bring in Mayor Menino . They can always find a castrato or two in Harvard Square.

It's possible the live show brought "Brand Upon the Brain!" out of its shell, creating a communal experience where the film's emotions were enlarged upon by performers and audience. By itself, the film's a dazzling, distanced passion play. "Brand" is the first of Maddin's movies where the gimmickry drowns out the director's wit and heart. It's as though he had turned his obsessions up to 11 and was relishing the feedback.

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Brand Upon the Brain!

Directed by: Guy Maddin

Written by: Maddin and George Toles

Starring: Sullivan Brown , Maya Lawson , Kathe rine E. Scharhon , Gretchen Krich , narrated by Isabella Rossellini

At: the Brattle Theatre

Running time: 95 minutes

Unrated (nudity, violence, sexual situations)