The WTF factor is always high in the work of Abel Ferrara and this movie is no exception: a wintry internal dream-odyssey in which sex and death are prominent. At one stage, this even features Willem Dafoe capering around the maypole with children to the accompaniment of Del Shannon’s Runaway. At times, it looks like a very severe version of Fellini or Jodorowsky.
Ferrara’s longtime collaborator Dafoe plays a man in middle age called Clint, whose rumbling voice we hear at first over the opening credits, reflecting on childhood trips to the remote Canadian wilderness, and it is perhaps out of a need to return to these intense memories that he appears now to be running a bar in Siberian wasteland. He has dreamlike encounters that are punctuated by traumatised delusional experiences or epiphanies: he imagines being attacked by huskies, or having an ecstatic, ambiguous erotic experience with a pregnant woman – who will suddenly age 50 years in a gruesome bloodbath. He goes on a pilgrim journey through the snowy landscape, being pulled by a team of huskies (Dafoe, incidentally, appears to be handling these animals very well). Simon McBurney plays a reclusive magus or heretic from whom Clint demands to know the truth about black magic, and the resulting sexual reverie features a woman transforming into McBurney’s sinister soothsayer.
Siberia becomes gripping, and even moving, when Clint encounters a vision of his own father, also played by Dafoe, wearing an old-man vest and with his face genially slathered in shaving soap: a straightforward doppelganger shot-reverse-shot setup that somehow works powerfully and well. The film’s freakiness and wooziness might have been a bit grating were it not for the glacial authority that Ferrara brings to every scene and shot – centred, of course, in the craggy gravitas of Dafoe himself.
• Siberia is available now on BFI Player.