Archangel is set in 1919 in the northern Russian area of Archangel, during a brief historical moment of Canadian intervention in the Bolshevik Revolution following the end of World War I. One-legged Canadian soldier Lt. John Boles sighs on the rail of a steamship over the ashes of his dead lover Iris. An officer mistakes Iris' urn for a bottle of liquor and throws it overboard into the sea. A narrator then delivers a sermon on the glories of Love and the horrors of Self-Love/Pride and how it forms the roots of War. (Maddin's daughter Jilian makes a cameo here as a young Cossack girl who orders the execution of a young boy.)
Boles arrives in the town of Archangel as an Allied troop and billets with a local family consisting of a brave son, Geza, a cowardly father, Jannings, and mother Danchuk (who is immediately smitten with Boles) and a grandmother simply called "Baba" along with a seemingly nameless baby. Geza has a seizure as Boles arrives but Boles treats him by scrubbing the boy's torso with horsehair brushes. He then prescribes Geza horsehair to eat (to cure worms) and other folk remedies, while scoffing at the folk remedies Baba offers. Veronkha enters and Boles spies her in a mirror and faints, so affected by her resemblance to his lost love Iris. After reviving, Boles remains convinced that Veronkha in fact is Iris, forgetting that Iris has died. As coincidence would have it, Veronkha's husband Philbin also suffers amnesia, and has forgotten that he is married to Veronkha.
Boles dresses up in full regalia and Geza admires his medals, for which Danchuk decides he should be punished. Jannings is too cowardly to flog the boy, so Boles steps in to whip Geza, which makes Geza admire Boles further. The citizenry of Archangel next participates in staging various battle tableaux, posing as victorious over the Huns while a narrator provides commentary on their bravery. Soon after, a real battle takes place, after which Boles and Danchuk travel over a field of corpses that they discover are mostly just resting. However, they do raise one grave marker for a single dead soldier. Boles next follows Veronkha, hoping to learn where she lives, but instead she goes to meet with Philbin's doctor and is hypnotized so that she can recount her wedding night, during which Philbin first forgets their marriage and Veronkha finds him having sex with the front-desk girl. The doctor mentions a rumour that Veronkha has had a child and Boles somehow jumps to the conclusion that the child is his (belonging to him and Iris, who he still believes Veronkha to be) and confuses Danchuk's baby as this child, heading back to his billet to console said baby.
Boles sets out to find Veronkha's home yet again, following a treasure map that is also her marriage certificate to Philbin. The dreamlike trek ends in failure. Next another battle begins, prefaced by a flood of rabbits into the "sleepy trenches" where the soldiers have all but fallen asleep. At the last minute they realize that the rabbits have been fleeing the Bolsheviks and an attack is upon them. Some Bolsheviks break into the family's home and threaten Geza after eviscerating Jannings. However, in a final act of bravery, Jannings strangles them with his own intestines. Unfortunately, Geza's head has been covered with a burlap sack and even as his father dies a hero Geza believes him to have died a coward, believing he's been saved by Philbin.
Veronkha decides to renew her marriage to Philbin after annulling her first marriage, and they fly back to the Murmansk Hotel to repeat their honeymoon. Boles follows, and Veronkha mistakes Boles for Philbin, confessing a false love for Boles to Boles thinking she will is making Philbin jealous. Veronkha is so shocked when she discovers that Boles isn't Philbin that she develops amnesia as well. Boles takes this opportunity to try to convince Veronkha that she is Iris. Veronkha disappears, and Boles follows the marriage certificate/treasure map again to find her, and does. They reunite gloriously, until Veronkha sees Philbin and remembers who she is, then rejects Boles and threatens to kill him if he touches her again. Boles, dismayed, heads back to the war, although first he begs Danchuk to take car of "his" baby (actually, already hers) if anything should happen to him.
Geza is killed in this battle, his ghost reunited with the ghost of his father and finally realizing that his father died a hero, saving him. Boles launches a final assault and is injured by a grenade marked "Gott straffe Kanada" ["God punish Canada"], staggering through the same treasure map route that previously took him to Veronkha—this time he arrives at the scene of her marriage (again) to Philbin. Boles then leaves Archangel to return home to Canada, destroyed.Kyle McCulloch as Lt. John Boles
Michael Gottli as Jannings
David Falkenburg as Geza
Michael O'Sullivan as Doctor
Margaret Anne MacLeod as Baba
Ari Cohen as Philbin
Sarah Neville as Danchuk
Kathy Marykuca as Veronkha
Victor Cowie as Sea Captain
Robert Lougheed as Kaiser Wilhelm II
Stephen Snyder as Stage Kaiser Wilhelm II
Archangel premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and was released to home video on a three-film disc titled The Guy Maddin Collection, which also includes Maddin's short film The Heart of the World and his feature film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Archangel is also included on the DVD boxed set The Quintessential Guy Maddin: 5 Films from the Heart of Winnipeg, released by Zeitgeist Video, alongside Careful, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and Cowards Bend the Knee.
In Spring 2008, the Winnipeg Film Group restored the film and struck four new 35mm film prints in order to re-present the film around the world. This restoration process removes some inter-titles and colour tinting that had been introduced by Maddin for the DVD release.
The film received generally positive reviews, with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reporting a 75% approval rating based on 8 reviews.
Film critic J. Hoberman praised the film, and noted that such stylistic approaches were typical of Maddin's growing body of work: "Maddin's most distinctive trait is an uncanny ability to exhume and redeploy forgotten cinematic conventions." Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that the film was "alternately creepy and beautiful."
In 1991, Archangel was awarded Best Experimental Film by the National Society of Film Critics.