Rep Cinema This Week: Stereo, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Parkland
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Rep Cinema This Week: Stereo, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Parkland

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

A still from Stereo.

At rep cinemas this week: David Cronenberg’s austere first feature film, Belgium’s histrionic Oscar contender, and a silly procedural about JFK’s assassination.

Directed by David Cronenberg

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Saturday, November 16, 2 p.m.

When A Dangerous Method came out in 2011, some David Cronenberg stalwarts complained that the director had strayed too far from his characteristic depictions of bodies in disarray. The sense was that he had arrived at a more talky, cerebral phase of his career—one perfectly exemplified by his latest film, which dealt with the origins of psychoanalysis and the talking cure. In response, Cronenberg wryly noted that Transfer, his first short film, made while he was still a student at the University of Toronto, was an all-talk affair involving a psychiatrist and his nervous patient. He could just as easily have pointed to 1969’s Stereo, his first feature film, about a host of twentysomethings enrolled in a parapsychological experiment that turns them into telepaths with voracious sexual appetites.

While the complex ideas in A Dangerous Method are conveyed largely through dialogue—whether during the in-person confrontations between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his pupil Jung (Michael Fassbender) or in their ornate letters—Stereo is a curious mélange of on-screen silence and deliberately heavy-handed voiceover. The narration is delivered by a series of disembodied clinicians who are observing the patients’ wraithlike wanderings and distracted sex in the empty halls and abandoned labs of the institution. The film’s flatly delivered, incomprehensible jargon is meant as a parody of academic prose.

Shot in gorgeous, stark black and white on the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus (whose odd brutalist geometry and long shadows come off like an expressionist set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Cronenberg’s debut feels like a quintessential student film despite its aesthetic accomplishments; it’s predictably dripping with contempt for the academic establishment in which it was made. All the same, it’s a fascinating start insofar as it introduces many of Cronenberg’s career fixations—everything from the risks of scientific experimentation, to sexual perversions, to the human desire for new forms of consciousness.

Stereo screens with Cronenberg’s short films, including Transfer and the superb Camera, which was commissioned to celebrate TIFF’s 25th anniversary in 2000.

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Directed by Felix van Groeningen

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Whatever else you might say about The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s selection to compete in the Best Foreign Film category at the upcoming Academy Awards, it surely has the best cinematic depiction of a bluegrass band performance at a hospital bedside in some time, if such a precedent even exists. An overlong and undercooked melodrama about a bohemian couple’s efforts to hold it together when their six-year-old daughter is diagnosed with cancer, Felix van Groeningen’s film is, as that set piece suggests, an odd mix of naturalism and romanticism, with predictably inconsistent results.

Screenwriter Johan Heldenbergh, who also authored the play on which his script was based, plays Didier, a banjo-playing singer-songwriter who loves bluegrass, American individualism, and his partner Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist and free spirit who, in the film’s fractured timeline, is eventually revealed to be the mother of his precocious child, Maybelle. Though they’re bound by their shared eccentricities (and evidently their careers, as Elise soon becomes the band’s frontwoman), the couple is tested by Maybelle’s illness and their respective beliefs about what it means—his atheist fatalism clashing against her faith in the afterlife.

Groeningen takes an ambitious approach to Heldenbergh’s unorthodox text, presenting watershed moments in the couple’s relationship out of sequence, withholding major information, and constantly switching up the film’s style. Didier and Elise’s performances are presented as dreamlike musical interludes, for example, while their fights have a naturalistic urgency to them. The project is obviously a labour of love for all involved, but one wishes these diverging tones and styles gelled into something more substantial than the bizarre concoction of anti-Americanism and New Age spiritualism we end up with. A more coherent product would have been more deserving of the actors’ rich performances.

Directed by Peter Landesman

Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)

The most generous way to approach Parkland, a mawkish compendium of storytelling clichés posing as a behind-the-scenes look at the day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, might be to read it as an unofficial prequel to Bobby, another star-studded Kennedy movie that nobody asked for. As in Bobby, we get a mix of fresh celebrity meat (Shia LaBeouf and Lindsay Lohan there, Zac Efron here) and heavy-hitters (Billy Bob Thornton and Paul Giamatti) stranded in a high-school production of American history, reciting goofy, faux-prescient lines about what a nice day it is for a motorcade, at least until the shots ring out.

Everyone suffers under first-timer Peter Landesman’s pedestrian direction—poor Efron plays an ER resident who spends ages administering CPR to a lifeless JFK in one awkward, blood-drenched set piece—but James Badge Dale somehow manages to give a moving performance as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert. Landesman’s efforts to parallel the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations are typically clumsy and overwrought, but Dale delivers.