The praise for Guy Maddin in general and Cowards Bend The Knee (2003) in particular is both mind-boggling and m/saddening. It is always disappointing and heartbreaking when the term "avante-garde" becomes tainted by usage of critics to praise people like Maddin. It looses its almost mythic aura when you have video amateurs being praised because somehow they come close to how Brakhage, Deren, Jean Epstein, or Claire are in atmosphere but not in spirit. Funny reading many reviews of this movie, one realizes that most critics are actually at a loss for explanation of what exactly is so avante-garde about Maddin's works. In Hoberman's reviews, it is the intertitles, the shaky (also "nervous" and "unstable") camera, and the decaying look of sepia that makes it avante-garde. For Matt Zoller Seitz, it's the Lang-inspired lighting and the use of two-way mirrors which also act as irises. But these are not at all avante-garde. True, Maddin is alone in his eclectic pursuits. But this eclecticism does not qualify as artistic experimentation. It's just that, eclecticism. More than not, Maddin just apes what silent and early sound cinemas have already innovated for camp. The dream-like feel of his movies are less about him doing anything dream-like (applying vaseline on camera lenses to create hazy images does not a dream make) than the invocation of memories of an unexperienced past as told through the ancient history of cinema, now ironically available through videotapes and DVDs. Compare the "dream" of Maddin's ADD jump-cuts and unstill cameras to Tarkovsky's evocative nature scenes and interplay of color and monochromatic film stocks and one discovers how Maddin truly lags behind true artists who understand the closeness of dream, nightmare, and cinema. Compare Eisenstein's montage sequences for Strike or Dovzhenko's editing in Arsenal, and look at Maddin's supposedly comparable editing in Heart of the World and one would understand why anyone would feel like poking their eyes out everyone calls this guy a "master". Wheras Dovzhenko created rhythm, emotion, and energy through the simple act of cutting images together, Maddin merely creates a barage of images that jumble into an incoherent mess, weakly supported by a quasi-Freudian message that imitates Lang's Metropolis (1927) for cheap snigger. I agree with Rosenbaum on one thing: "there's nothing remotely normal about any of the Maddin films." But only in a strictly conformist society does abnormality ever becomes a sign of distinction.
In terms of its exploration of sex, Cowards Bend the Knee is boringly and routinely Freudian. Penises aren't penises but phallic structures. Sex is power struggle. The woman is the mother and the man is the father/son (sorry, there are no daughters). It's not erotic, it's academic. Some artists such as Antonioni and Almodovar manage to make auterist touches seem sexy instead of mechanic; Maddin unfortunately does not have their talent. An uplifted hand, instead of oozing the sexiness of power and the power of sex, manages to convey sex and power separately. A kinky woman dipping her finger in sugar and proceeding to suck the hell out of it is documented without care. No, this isn't a means of conveying sex in a new way. Simply, this is a result of someone conveying sex who couldn't really care any less about it.
Compare this to Laurice Guillen's 1992 Tagalog blockbuster Dahil Mahal Kita ("Because I love you") and Maddin is exposed for the coward filmmaker that he is. Guillen doesn't settle for the Freudian hegemony. Instead, she delves into the very humane urge to fuck. Profanely, Guillen's movie is about a promiscuous woman who is infected with HIV and develops AIDS. Instead of giving up, her will to live and to live on puts her at odds with her caretakers and a country in denial of the truth about AIDS when she becomes the first person to come out with her illness. The movie lacks Maddin's different-ness, focusing instead on rote realism underlined by heavy-handed melodrama. But Guillen's movie makes use of melodrama to give the story emotional credibility, but not to the point of losing its dignity. The best scene has Dolzura describing what she longs after developing AIDS, verbally describing sex without really going into anything blatantly sexual. With her descriptions of ears, legs, hands, and eyes, the scene deftly explores the nature of erotica rather than merely putting it on display. It's simplicity and sincerity lends the scene the eroticism a full-blown sex scene may not have provided. With a filmmaking style more interested in being profound and sincere, Guillen ultimately makes a movie more interesting and interested in sex than Maddin's handjob of a movie.