The adventurous Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin can get a lot done in an hour: murder, hockey playing, amputation, horny ghosts, gynecological procedures performed with a whisk. Give him 60 minutes, he'll give you the unconscious world, and beguilingly, too.
On its surface, his latest foray into the inexplicable, ''Cowards Bend the Knee," is a cautionary tale of lust, all of whose events take place inside a single squirt of semen. Unlike a lot of directors compelled to unload their darkness onto the screen, Maddin's vulgarities don't play as brutalities. He'd rather tickle than torture.
Maddin's movies -- among them, ''Careful," ''Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary," and last year's opus ''The Saddest Music in the World" -- use a certain apres-garde sensibility to forge an avant-garde aesthetic. While directors such as Robert Rodriguez and Kerry Conran (with ''Sin City" and ''Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," respectively) turn the past into snoozy film-history museums, Maddin consistently uses vintage moviemaking to his own ragged and infectious ends.
''Cowards Bend the Knee" opens with that splash of semen being watched under a microscope. Through it we see a hockey team smacking the puck around on the ice. Among the players is our hero, who shares Maddin's name and is played by Darcy Fehr. He has a girlfriend, Veronica (Amy Stewart), who informs him that she's having his kid. Guy rushes her to a beauty parlor that doubles as a bordello that doubles as an abortion clinic. The chief of surgery, Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin), is a vision of deranged silent-movie evil. While poor Veronica suffers, Guy runs off with the bordello madam's daughter, Meta (Melissa Dionisio).
What ensues is a fevered revenge plot, all perpetrated on Guy, who becomes as confused and tragic as one of Arthur Schnitzler's or Franz Kafka's protagonists. Meta's mother, Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), and her lover Shaky (David Stuart Evans) cut off the hands of Meta's beautician father (Henry Mogatas). The vengeful daughter talks Guy into having his own hands replace her dad's. What follows you'll have to see for yourself, but, as is typical with Maddin, it's erotic and terrifically weird, if not for everyone.
While wholeheartedly recommending ''Cowards," I wonder if Maddin's liberty from the strictures of even vaguely commercial filmmaking hasn't gone to his head. Maddin himself seems to be wrestling with the question of restraint, but ultimately the real moral here is that in the movies, self-control is a form of compromise.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.