Rep Cinema This Week: Cemetery of Splendour, Stinking Heaven, and Mustang
The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a sublime Thai drama about ghosts and sleep, an incendiary American indie, and an Academy Award-nominated debut from Turkey.
Cemetery of Splendour
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Thai Palme D’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes a beautiful variation on old themes in the enchanting if slumber-inducing Cemetery of Splendour. Every bit the equal of the more celebrated Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the film is set at a country hospital that houses soldiers who’ve fallen into a mysterious deep sleep that might have supernatural roots. The plot, such as it is, finds a young medium and not-so-young volunteer at the hospital joining forces to get to the bottom of the men’s illnesses, which appears to have something to do with the unsettled psychic energies of the archeological site beneath the ground they stand on.
Part ghost story, part regional idyl, and part hallucination, the film is difficult to put into any neat generic categories. Suffice it to say that it is singularly Apichatpong, the work of a modest, funny, and serious filmmaker with an impossibly delicate sensibility. Beneath the film’s soft, quietly shuffling tone and pacing and gorgeously muted visuals—including the signature image of the soldiers piped to sleep under glowing tubes whose colours change like mood rings—is a surprisingly trenchant allegory about the dangers of sleeping on one’s national history.
Directed by Nathan Silver
The Royal (608 College Street)
American independent auteur Nathan Silver makes another distinct portrait of an unsteady ecosystem torpedoed by an outsider in Stinking Heaven. Shot in junky-looking analog video and set in New Jersey in the ’90s, the film is anchored in a sober commune for ex-addicts. These addicts’ already frayed bonds are put under unbearable strain when Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) is forced to take in her shaky ex Ann (Hannah Gross) on the verge of her marriage to a fellow resident. As things tend to go in Silver’s films, Ann’s presence sets off a chain reaction of catastrophes, from shouting matches to relapses to disappearances.
For initiates, Silver’s aesthetic might best be described as volatile. The filmmaker is fond of close-ups that cage his actors in claustrophobic two-shots and blot out the world around them. His penchant for having his cast feed off each other’s energies in improvised arguments has mixed results here, paying off beautifully for Gross and Deragh Campbell (both stars of Matthew Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker, and both Canadian, incidentally), but leading to some occasional stilted screechiness from minor players. For viewers who have the stomach for this kind of intense interpersonal drama, though, Silver’s work is an American original, a Cassavetes film laced with firecrackers.
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Regent Theatre (551 Mt. Pleasant Road Toronto)
Though it was pitched ahead of its successful festival run as the Turkish answer to The Virgin Suicides, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s accomplished debut Mustang stubbornly takes on a form of its own. Nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, Ergüven’s film is a finely tuned character study of five teen sisters living under the punishing conservative regime of their grandmother and uncle in a Turkish coastal town. After a neighbour’s disapproving eye catches the girls’ semi-flirtatious play with local boys, the sisters are locked indoors and indoctrinated into a world of patriarchal denial and control. Before long they are severed from the outside world (and pop culture), draped in form-obscuring smocks, and forcefully engaged to a succession of either brutish or disengaged young men. The younger girls are left to watch in fear as their older siblings are silenced one by one.
What might have been an overly schematic allegory for how independent women are repressed under violent patriarchal regimes is instead a warm portrait of one family in disarray, pulled apart by the unpredictable and uncontainable energies of five young women whose identities are stamped out the moment they begin to form them. The film is at once a trenchant critique and an intimate story, the former flowing from the latter. That’s thanks to the honest, natural performances Ergüven gets out of her young cast, and the script’s delicacy and tact in emphasizing the normal waves of excitement and ennui that these average young women experience in an extreme situation.