Before Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1987) had become one of Canada’s biggest cult hits ever, no one knew quite what to make of the filmmaker’s skewed aesthetic. By the time he made Archangel, audiences were primed for the perverse, labyrinthine plot and peculiar visual sense, qualities of Tales from Gimli Hospital that had confused and exasperated as many viewers as they had charmed.
Like Tales from Gimli Hospital, the comic melodrama Archangel springs from its own world. Set in the remote northern village of Archangel in pre-revolutionary Russia during the Great War, Maddin plunks a lovestruck Canadian soldier, Lt. John Boles (McCulloch), down among White Russians, Bolsheviks and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Huns. The one-legged Boles fights courageously in a (strategically) suspect series of battles, blurred by the fogbound atmosphere and general amnesia afflicting Boles and most of the people around him, while he searches for his beloved Iris. The trouble is, Iris is dead.
In Archangel, Boles meets the beautiful Veronkha (Marykuca), whom he mistakes for Iris. But Veronkha is married to Philbin (Cohen), however, his memory has been so devastated by mustard gas that he keeps forgetting he is Veronkha’s husband. Veronkha eventually marries the young lieutenant Boles, having fallen in love with him, or perhaps, having mistaken him for Philbin, or.... Still, there’s more. Boles’ landlady, Danchuk (Neville), also becomes smitten with him, and rejects her repulsive husband, Jannings (Gottli). Boles is also attracted to Danchuk, but loves Veronkha, and continues to long for Iris — who, by the way, is still dead.
Shot in sumptuous black and white and worthy of the Austrian-born filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, Archangel is filled with slices of the surreal and cruel. Only Maddin’s second feature film, Archangel reaffirmed his fondness for creating complex narratives and adapting the style of silent films. It marked a progression from Tales from Gimli Hospital in his command of the material, and offered further evidence that Maddin has one of the most unique visions in cinema — anywhere. Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film called Archangel a “masterpiece,” and “a wistful, luminous conflation of absurdity, high romance and heroic delusion.”