The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: the first part of Lars von Trier’s playful biography of a sex addict, an ironic adaptation of a classical Chinese novel, and a psychedelic horror film set in the English Civil War.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Directed by Lars von Trier
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Early in the first volume of Lars von Trier’s career-capping Nymphomaniac, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mysterious stranger Joe promises to tell rapt listener Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the “whole story” of her sexual development leading to the moment she turned up wounded at his doorstep, though she warns it’s a long one. That’s just the first of many winks, not only to the semi-ironic grandeur of the film’s undertaking—clocking in at over four hours, in two parts—but to its skeptical approach to the act of storytelling, a partial, mendacious activity that can’t possibly account for an entire life, no matter the form.
Much of the early press surrounding the film has focused on Trier’s use of digital trickery to superimpose the assets of pornographic film actors onto the cast members’ bodies to simulate (paradoxically) unsimulated sex. The real story, though, is how incidental that trivia is to the film itself, an unofficial Moll Flanders adaptation about the slippery nature of how we narrate our lives, and how indebted those narratives are to our voracious cultural consumption. Joe’s early biography, broken into several chapters that suggest a didactic storybook for children, spans everything from fly-fishing documentaries to the conventions of romantic coming-of-age novels, as well it might: we are, Trier suggests, as much the products of our aesthetic educations as we are the products of anything seemingly more definitive, like, say, our sexual histories. Heady as that sounds, this is also Trier’s funniest film in some time, a very long set-up to a joke that Volume II aims to pay off—but a good one.
The Emperor Visits the Hell
Directed by Luo Li
Double Double Land (209 Augusta Avenue)
Based in the loosest way possible on a 16-century Chinese novel about the Emperor Li Shimin, who finds himself dogged by the spirit of the Dragon King and dragged into the underworld, Luo Li’s The Emperor Visits the Hell is some sort of watershed for ironic literary adaptations. Rather than set his version of the story in the era of the Ming Dynasty and consequently recycle any number of costume drama tropes, Li bluntly relocates it to contemporary China, where the Emperor is a sleepy bureaucrat and the Dragon King a tough-looking pool shark.
Mileage will vary here. Those with fluency in contemporary Chinese politics and an intimate knowledge of the source text—recreated here via superimposed captions that never seem to match the onscreen visuals, two timelines, and tonal registers overlaid on top of each other in anarchic fashion—will certainly profit more from Li’s reserved satire than total neophytes. Others may still marvel at the film’s delicate construction, its unhurried long takes, keenly observed frontal shots of the Emperor going about his daily calligraphy routine—and most of all, its stunning photography. One low-lit sequence set entirely in a car as the Emperor’s journey is scored to a tape of an opera might be the key to Li’s approach, the interplay between the live and the recorded nicely bringing out the film’s playful response to the problem of how to reanimate classical stories for the present.
A Field in England
Directed by Ben Wheatley
The Royal (608 College Street)
After carving out a niche for himself as a master of contemporary horror with the weirdly funny satanic thriller Kill List and the rural killing spree romp Sightseers, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has dug a little further into his nation’s past for A Field in England. Set among a crop of deserters in the English Civil War, seeking shelter from the elements, their commanding officers, and their basest instincts, the film is Wheatley’s most ambitious so far—at once his most naturalistic work, culling its eeriness from the windswept hedgerows of the landscape (rendered in crisp digitally shot black and white), and his most avant-garde, stopping the show at one point for an extended psychedelic episode wrought by some wonky mushrooms.
Though his films are primarily categorizable as horror, Wheatley has a penchant for the darkly comic, and A Field in England is at its best when it’s indulging in that streak, as when our protagonist, an alchemist’s assistant with a taste for his master’s trade, runs through the list of his mad companion’s many ailments and confirms that at the very least, he will not turn into a frog. For the most part, Wheatley’s aesthetic experimentations do a nice job of opening up the genre to something more high-toned and strange, but they do at times feel unusually ersatz for such a distinctive filmmaker, with a couple of conspicuously framed tableaus seeming to be on loan from Ingmar Bergman films, especially The Seventh Seal. Still, this is strong stuff.