The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s hysterical cult classic, Bruce McDonald’s Toronto-based black comedy, and Lars von Trier’s career-capping biography of a sex addict.
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Though it was originally envisioned as the Japanese answer to American blockbusters like Jaws, experimental filmmaker and commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (also known by its Japanese title Hausu) is just about indescribable—a hysterical mix of high camp, low-grade horror, goofy allegory, and inscrutable surrealism. The story of seven schoolgirls who retire to a country home haunted by an undead aunt with a taste for young flesh, House is as infectious and pure as cult cinema gets, a weird montage of atomic bombs, possessed cats, and severed heads.
While some cult classics come bound up with labyrinthine fan rules—one ought not to see The Room for the first time, for example, in a crowd armed with plastic spoons and mini-footballs—House is immediately accessible, its pleasures entirely derived from the lunatic energy on screen rather than any snarky attitude one brings to it. It’s also distinct from its cult brethren in that it seems to have been engineered to create a maximally delirious theatrical experience—it’s not an accidentally so-bad-it’s-good movie that’s been rescued from the dustbins for midnight screenings. In other words, with its makeshift matte effects, its riotous musical numbers, and its kitschy animated interludes, House is singularly strange—the unmistakable product of Obayashi’s daffy mind.
Directed by Bruce McDonald
The Royal (608 College Street)
Unlike the consistent trajectory followed by fellow Toronto New Wave filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald’s career has never quite settled into a recognizable pattern, accommodating genre thrillers like Pontypool as well as hybrid fiction-concert movies like This Movie is Broken. The Husband, McDonald’s newest, is especially hard to place, pitched as it is on the edge of being either a black comedy or a psychological thriller.
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos plays Henry, the eponymous stooge, a Toronto ad man whose wife has just been hauled off to prison for sleeping with her 14-year-old student, leaving Henry in charge of their infant son. Henry doesn’t quite know how to cope with the humiliation, turning into a disgruntled stalker hellbent on giving his wife’s underage lover (and, though Henry doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of the situation, statutory rape victim) a taste of his misery.
McDonald is something of an unsung talent in English-Canadian cinema, appreciated for his endurance but underrated for his technical prowess and democratic tastes. The Husband is a nice showcase of the low-key naturalism he’s honed over the years making faux-documentaries like Hard Core Logo, making excellent use of some distinctly recognizable Toronto spaces, including the spiral staircases of the AGO. That goes some distance toward making up for the relative thinness of the material, a character sketch that feels unnecessarily stretched even at eighty minutes. Though its tonal complexity and willingness to push its lead to uncomfortable places is refreshing, then, it isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature-length film, and for all its efforts, The Husband ends up as undefined as the nondescript title suggests.
Nymphomaniac: vol. 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 also 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 von Trier’s use of digital trickery to superimpose the assets of pornographic film actors onto the cast members’ bodies to simulate (paradoxically) non-simulated 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, von 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 von 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.