Monday, March 12, 2012

The Turin Horse (2011) A Film by Bela Tarr

Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse would seem like The End even if the director himself hadn't boldly declared it his final feature. Brooding, angry, apocalyptic, and bathed in the kind of deadly seriousness that only accompanies major artistic statements, the film is a lugubrious retreat from civilization, narrative, perhaps even existence and - in its final moments as gas lamps fail to ignite in the darkness - illumination, the stuff of cinema itself. This is a massive, earth-shaking film, even as its geographical specificity and narrative simplicity seems to imply something smaller and humbler than anything Tarr has done before. Taking the episode that allegedly launched Nietzsche's prolonged madness and near-comatose state in 1889 as its starting point, the film then builds a world around the horseman who the famous philosopher witnessed beating his stubborn animal. In a career filled with subtle Breughelian moves, it's Tarr's most overt yet, a deliberately withholding maneuver that hearkens back to the painter's Fall of Icarus, where the more historically notable, titular scene was similarly disregarded. It's also an immediate reminder of Tarr's fundamental concern: the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the seemingly unimportant people, whom he always proves to be irrevocably human in one way or another.

The horseman, named Ohlsdorfer and played by Tarr regular János Derzsi, sustains a meager livelihood in a harsh, arid Hungarian plain with his loyal and hard-working daughter (the familiar Erika Bók). A torrential windstorm presses on day and night, never ceasing, picking up vicious tornadoes of dirt and leaves and making it so that any trip outside is an epic pilgrimage. Their stone cottage, practically crumbling from the incessant beating it takes from the weather, is dark and grimy. The dirt caked on its every surface is paid vivid attention by Tarr's camera, and painterly shafts of light slip in through the house's few tiny windows, creating a cavernous space of deep blacks and ethereal whites. Within this tactile yet otherworldly location, the father and daughter enact and reenact the same domestic routines day after day, their lives consumed by the labor required to maintain even the slightest sustenance. This work demands so much of them that they have nearly ceased verbal communication entirely, save for the occasional unintelligible grunt from the father and curt declarative statement from the daughter ("It's ready," referring to the two boiled potatoes that comprise their every meal, is a common one).

Tarr, more faithful to the chronological flow of daily life than ever before here, molds these endlessly repeated routines into a linear six-day structure with title cards indicating each new day. It's one of the two structural decisions that allows the film to somewhat closely resemble Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman - the other being his decision to vary the camera's relationship to these routines throughout. Like Akerman, Tarr has discovered brilliantly simple ways to induce a kind of quotidian hypnosis and lend the film an unlikely sense of propulsion. In The Turin Horse as well as in Jeanne Dielman, a curious tension is maintained between predictability and unpredictability; while the narrative rhythms and repetitions make perfectly clear what the actors will perform in the next scene and roughly how they will perform it, there is never any way to guess how those actions will be composed, and the subtle distinctions in the cinematographic design dredge up emotional depth and complexity beneath the seemingly mundane flow of everyday life. (For instance, the first meal portrays the father as animalistic, the second conveys the calm subservience of the daughter, and the third detects a kind of harmonious intimacy between them in two-shot). Furthermore, any disruption to the actual content of the repetitions is doubly unnerving, because audience awareness has been heightened by the relative redundancy therein.

In this light, The Turin Horse establishes a set of narrative patterns to be performed roughly in order: 1) the daughter wakes, only to be followed shortly after by her father; 2) the daughter, after adding fire to the hearth, heads outside to retrieve water from their well and returns to help dress her father in his day clothing; 3) they both take a swig of palinka, the father's preferred hard liquor; 4) she prepares two boiled potatoes for them to eat; 5) he heads out to the barn, where he takes the horse out of its stable for a ride into town to fetch amenities; 6) upon return, she helps him back inside and dresses him into his night clothing; 7) they sleep. These activities are broken up by portions of rest and sizable chunks of time sitting and looking out the window at the featureless Hungarian landscape, as if in a church pew. They occur over and over, passionlessly and without blemishes, yet there's something too lived-in about their movements, too ancient about their behaviors, to compare them to robots programmed for work. These are people who are fully aware of their destitute situation and who despise every minute of it, yet they are at a loss to change it. Like the stubborn drunks from Damnation, the poor and gullible small-town farmers from Satantango, or the brooding bay watchmen from The Man from London, their lives are victim to a brutal fate machine that they are forced to either endure or be defeated by.

Yet there are always signs of change for better or worse, little hiccups in the drudgery of existence that suggest a reversal, or at least a slight turn, of fate. In Tarr's work, these instances often stand in metaphorically for misleading forces of authority, false promises that lead only to greater misery. Other times, they merely reinforce a vision of the contemporary world as disharmonious, chaotic, and cosmically imbalanced. In The Turin Horse, they act as gradual reminders of mortality, the notion that none of our consistent routines can last forever and we are all bound to die. First, a strange guest (Mihály Kormos) arrives, at first seeking to refill his supply of palinka and then launching into a vague, extended rant on the rotten state of existence that seems to mirror some of Tarr's recent, only-slightly-more-specific musings on the "shitty" current state of society. (Few directors can pull off allegorical dialogue that is this generalized and open-ended, but Tarr lets it absorb fluidly into the vaguely unreal mood of his cinematic world.) Second, a band of hysterical America-bound gypsies raid the well that provides the father and daughter their only source of water. Ohlsdorfer shoos them away with wicked verbal aggression, but not before they steal some of the water, drop a curious quasi(anti?)-Bible in the daughter's hands, and potentially cast a spell on them that is the cause of their dry well the following day. Finally, in the throes of all this, and likely inspired by the never-ending gale outside, their horse refuses to take the father into town and accept food and water.

Each of these domestic interruptions points towards the film's blackly comic absurdity. Tarr's always had a nasty sense of humor, but here it reaches its darkest and most biting. At the end of Kormos' speech, the longest stretch of dialogue in the film, Ohlsdorfer unleashes a sharp brush-off that instantly puts into question the integrity of the man's ideas: "Come off of it. That's rubbish." Later, when the father and daughter choose to leave their home, Tarr holds a long, long shot of the nearby hill and lonely tree over which they passed, only to watch as they slowly return after a minute or more from an empty, static frame. It's a gag that wouldn't be out of place in a Monty Python film. That being said, there's nothing funny about the horse's slow, assertive abstinence from activity, which seems as much an active rebuttal to her owner's often harsh ways as it is an act of resignation to the unforgiving grimness of her life. She stares her own mortality in the face, which supplies additional poignancy to the existential perseverance of the father and daughter. Who comes away with a better scenario in the end is one of the most intriguing questions Tarr leaves on the table.

Whatever the case, The Turin Horse undoubtedly creates a world that is perpetually on the brink of finality and asks its characters to allow civilization to fail or push it onwards. Every one of the film's major aesthetic contributions underlines this idea. The single musical piece by the always impressive Mihály Víg is relentlessly churning and circular, its minor-key organ arpeggios and wheezing violins insistent reminders of the redundancy of quotidian life, and its dark, intense forward motion a hurdle towards an impending doom. So constant and menacing is this triplet dirge that it underscores the banalities of daily life with a throbbing dramatic pulse. Fred Keleman's cinematography, meanwhile, finds expressive ways to outline every dimension of the film's limited chamber space with elaborate camera moves - often on a steadicam, a device that is used more consistently here than in any Tarr film, but which is wholly necessary given the drastic single-shot trips from hushed interiors to blustery exteriors - that draw attention to the feebleness of the human body and the weight of time. László Krasznahorkai, the writer of every Tarr film since Damnation, supplies the film's enigmatic monologues and narrations (including the Nietzsche anecdote that opens the film), as well as the fictional sacred text that Bók reads, phoneme by phoneme, in a haunting scene on the fifth day. Tarr's wife/editor Agnes Hranitzky, always finding the perfect beat in her husband's majestic tracking shots to cut to the next, is also credited as co-director.

That this is reportedly the last time this visionary team will collaborate seems to have nudged them all to the top of their game, with each distilling his/her own special talents to cohere with the tantalizingly bare-bones texture of Tarr's film. The Turin Horse, despite its repetitiousness, its tiny ensemble, and its utter narrative void, is an unfailingly evocative and affecting achievement, a film that possesses a raw, wordless power. It bears the sense of a single individual expressing his deepest, most sincere thoughts about existence and the state of our world, which he perceives to be tarnished by authority and political manipulation, corrupted by capitalism, and exhausted by poor quality of living. This is, for sure, Tarr's bleak worldview, but it's not without a beacon of gleaming optimism, a permanent love for even the most destitute people and a belief in their essential dignity.


StephenM said...

Fantastic. The most comprehensive, definitive review of the film I've seen. I saw the movie last week, but I have no idea how to write about it without just describing things, and that seems terribly inadequate.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks so much for the high praise Stephen. I really appreciate it. Tarr's obviously one of my favorites, and I can't help but try to give all my energy when writing about his work.