The Man from London (Bela Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky, 2007)
Every director has a weakness. Bela Tarr's has always been plot. His best movies (and the best movies of Bela Tarr, one of the best directors working today, are some of the best movies of all time) are those where plot is almost a non-consideration, where he focuses on the characters and their reactions to seemingly mundane situations. Both Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies fall into this category. On the other hand, we have Tarr's excursions into the world of the crime film, Karozhat and The Man from London. While they are both still worth watching, neither approaches the brilliance of the two aforementioned; as it so often does, plot gets in the way.
Adapted by longtime Tarr collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai from a novel by Georges Simenon, The Man from London opens with one of those wonderful scenes that Tarr inherited by way of Tarkovsky. It runs fully fifteen minutes, and while the camera does move to take in different parts of the scene, it is for the most part stationary. If you're enough of a Tarr fan to have grokked the whole "endless scene" thing, you might not even notice that there is action. But there is. Maloin (The Country Teacher's Miroslav Krobot) is the harbormaster in a nameless seaside town in France. (I seem to recall someone saying this is Paris, but please. This is Tarr's nameless rural Hungarian town transported to France.) One night, he's watching people disembarking as usual, going through customs, when one passenger, Brown (Janos Derszi, returning from Werckmeister Harmonies), doesn't get on the train as most do. Instead, he goes around the other side of the boat and waits in the darkness. Another man, Teddy, throws a case off the side of the ship before disembarking himself, and Brown retrieves it. We pan over to the train, which slowly pulls out of the station. (In the way these things tend to feed off one another, this shot made me wonder if Tarr had seen Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, with the opening credits dissolving into the long, slow shot of the train's wheels.) We head back over, and we find Brown and Teddy struggling over the case. Brown pushes Teddy into the water. Teddy drowns, taking the case with him. Brown walks away. And then comes scene two, where Maloin sets the events of the rest of the film in motion by going out and retrieving the case, which turns out to be full of money. He hides it, intending to get his wife Camelia (Tilda Swinton) and daughter Henriette (Erika Bok, whose role in Satantango will likely never be forgotten by anyone who's seen that film) out of their ramshackle flat, but a monkeywrench is thrown into the works when Morrison (A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda's Istvan Lenart), the Man from London, appears looking for the case. He knows immediately that Brown took it, and goes as far as bringing Brown's wife (Hungarian Beauty's Agi Szirtes) in to help look for him. All the while, Maloin goes on about his business, playing chess with the local bar owner (Gyula Pauer, another returnee from Werckmeister Harmonies) and sitting in his tower, drinking vodka and watching the ships.
My wife is not a Bela Tarr fan, and so when we talked about the movie afterwards, I got a fresh perspective. She brought some things to the fore that I'd always noticed, but kind of shuffled to the back of my mind. Most notably that everyone in Bela Tarr's movies ranges from the aggressively plain to the monstrously ugly. I wouldn't go so far as to call Tarr's movies cinema verite--they are far too composed for that--but it has always struck me that Tarr's lack of movie-star-looking folk is one of the hallmarks he uses to tell us that while his movies are obviously choreographed, there's more of reality to them than there is to anything turned out by Holly/Bolly/Nollywood and their imitators. Similarly those long, long shots, which are often long to the point of uncomfortability; it's another way of looking at Maloin playing chess while Morrison is interrogating Brown in the other room. It's a way of saying "life goes on." And it does.
One thing that really impressed me about this, and the thing that makes me think that Tarr really could turn in a fine crime film at some point, is the paradox that the long shots, which are often so full of nothing, fill the movie with a tension that is at times well nigh unbearable. There's so much nothing going on at points in this movie that you know there's a shoe about to drop. That it never does (I have often said that Tarr's films usually turn around one shocking piece of violence; I don't think it's a spoiler to say that in the case of The Man from London, it's the initial fight between Brown and Teddy, which is mirrored later when Maloin is attempting to extricate Henriette from her job) just keeps the tension ramping up. I have no idea how that works, and it's something that, of all the long-shot directors, Tarr does best. Maloin undresses and goes to bed, and Camelia comes in and closes the shutters in the bedroom. It's black. And it stays black for about a minute. You know something is going to happen. And you keep knowing it, even as nothing does. It makes no sense, but it works.
And forgive me for going on and on about this movie, especially when I'm giving it a middling rating, but talking to my wife about it afterwards got me going about the brilliance that is Bela Tarr. Every shot means something. Every decision means something. And it's all lovely, even the ugly bits. I adore the film stock he uses, that washed-out black-and-white stuff probably left over from the fifties that looks almost silver when projected. I love the way he pans off to someone who has no bearing whatsoever on the story so we can watch him eat bread and soup for two minutes. (What does it mean? Once again, that life goes on.) I even love the fact that this movie was originally filmed in Hungarian (and one wonders whether Swinton learned Hungarian, or whether she did her dialogue in English), dubbed into French on Tarr's orders, and then subtitled into English. I love Tilda Swinton in this movie, who gives the same odd disconnect that Lars Rudolph (well-known to American audiences from Lola Rennt) did in Werckmeister Harmonies; you see all these Hungarian players in Tarr films, people that we in the Western world wouldn't know unless we're far deeper into Eastern European film than most American viewers are capable of getting, and then all the sudden--Tilda Swinton! A recognizable face in a Bela Tarr movie? It makes no sense, and that makes it all the more enjoyable. (And what's more, a recognizable face in a minor role? And playing, if the film really has one, the bad guy? It's delicious casting.)
David Thomson, in his Werckmeister Harmonies entry in Have You Seen...?, closes with a paragraph about how Tarr's films look to the universal. I disagree with that assessment; Tarr's movies, be they the plotless wonders that are destined for classic status or the relatively minor crime films, have always struck me as intensely personal, intimate pictures. They resonate because even if you've never been to Hungary or France, you've walked these streets, talked to these ugly people (or made fun of them behind their backs), watched them in the drudgery of their work. Maybe that's what Thomson's on about; the universality of the personal, or some such nonsense. In any case, every Bela Tarr film I've seen feels like he made it just for me. And just for you. And just for etc.
The Man from London is not by any means Tarr's best work. Start with Werckmeister Harmonies. I'd tell you to start with Satantango, but that is a big, big investment for a first exposure. Go to that one second. And then watch The Man from London and Karozhat (which was recently released as a double-feature DVD with Werckmeister). I think they'll make a bit more sense once you've got a solid footing in the absurd, and yet utterly real, universe that Bela Tarr inhabits. ***