Protagonist Guy Maddin returns to Black Notch island, where he grew up alongside an orphanage run by his mother and father, to put a new coat of paint on the lighthouse to appease his mother. The film consists of twelve labeled chapters, most set back in Guy's childhood, dealing with a mother who spies on the island from the lighthouse, the "aerophone" invention he always carries which lets his mother contact him from any part of the island through the power of love, his burgeoning feeling for Sweet Polly Oliver Chance/Wendy, girl detective, the love triangle between him, his sister, and Chance, a sinister scheme involving harvesting "nectar" from the orphans... it's a strange movie, really.
This film provides examples of:
- Brain Fever: Guy legitimately comes down with it at one point.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The film is black and white except for the occasional Splash of Color, generally on sexual images in reds and pinks.
- Eternal Recurrence: Guy has an odd quote that "Everything that happens will happen again. Twice." He has specifically returned to the island in hopes of refinding the happy experiences of his childhood.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The family consists of Mother, Father, Sis, and Guy.
- Le Film Artistique: It was silent, shot with grainy, black and white 16 mm film, and narrated and orchestrated live... all that without getting into the plot.
- Kid Detective: Wendy and Chance are famous harp-playing Kid Detectives whose adventures are apparently published as books.
- Knockout Gas: Guy deploys it to put the orphans and Mother to sleep so that Chance can examine them. He succumbs to the gas himself.
- Lighthouse Point: A lighthouse is the central setting of the movie.
- Love Chart: Two are featured, showing the complex interrelations of three characters. There are two because there's one for Wendy and one for Chance, both of whom are the same person.
- Love Triangle: Guy falls in love with Wendy on first sight. Wendy and Sis have sparks fly when their eyes meet. Wendy reappears as Chance and both Guy and Sis fall for her... Wendy/Chance, for her part, seems to only have eyes for Sis.
- Male Frontal Nudity: Due to Father, there is more male frontal nudity than female nudity.
- Onscreen Chapter Titles: Each of the twelve chapters is announced with a Title Card.
- Retraux: It's a black-and-white silent film, done with many vintage touches.
- Silence Is Golden: The film is done as a silent film with sound effects, but included a live narrator for many of the screenings. The track of Isabella Rossellini was used as the narrator for performances that lacked a live narrator. The DVD release includes all of the featured live narrators as choices, as well as Guy Maddin.
- Sweet on Polly Oliver: Guy finds himself falling for Chance...
- Two-Person Love Triangle: Guy falls in love with Wendy initially, but then finds he's having strange feelings for Chance, actually Wendy in disguise.
- Work Info Title: The full title is Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters.