Among the many changes made to this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was the presence of several ‘guest curators’, who included in their number such luminaries as Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant and Béla Tarr, whose latest work, The Turin Horse, also received its UK premiere at the festival. For his contribution, Tarr chose to screen work from three fellow Hungarian visionaries who, on the basis of their work here, manage to stand as unique cinematic voices, while also revealing a chain of influence and a national and artistic context within which to read Tarr’s own oeuvre. The three directors whose work was represented – Gábor Bódy, Miklós Jancsó and György Fehér – were all friends of Tarr (only Jancsó is still alive), and their rigid determination and artistic experimentation have surely fed Tarr’s creative viewpoint. When introducing the films, Tarr referred to Bódy’s wish to destroy “stupid” storylines in favour of an emphasis on the material essence of film as picture and sound, and to Jancsó’s belief that listening to people, history and landscape is more important than narrative. All four filmmakers, it seems, share a love for the tactile possibilities of the filmic image and a distrust of conventional, story-led cinema.
In many ways the most extreme of the three in its rejection of traditional filmmaking was Bódy’s challengingly experimental American Torso. The story, inasmuch as the film can be said to have one, is about two veterans of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution who meet in America during the Civil War. Using a new piece of cartography equipment, the men are tasked with finishing a map of the local area so that the American troops can sufficiently prepare themselves for an attack. However, based as it is on a number of sources – from letters to diaries to poems to stories – the film has a patchwork-like quality to its narrative, matched in form by the constant treating of the film’s images and soundtrack: it pulsates with streaks of light, white flashes and torn images. Supposedly utilised by Bódy to give American Torso the feel of a film originating from the late 19th century, this so-called “light editing” technique certainly contributes to the film’s timeless quality – a quality shared by all three of Tarr’s chosen pieces (and, of course, by Tarr’s own work). Although ultimately the least satisfying of the curated films, Tarr’s assertion that he hasn’t been able to forget the film since he first saw it 36 years ago is easy to understand.
Equally memorable is Jancsó’s The Round-Up which, like American Torso, also uses the 1848 Revolution as its backdrop. This time the story concerns the authorities’ last attempts to identify a band of rebels by promising one of the guerrillas that his crimes will be absolved if he identifies his former comrades amongst the prisoners of an internment camp. Although I missed the elaborate, elegant camera moves for which Jancsó would become famous with his next film, The Red and the White, The Round-Up’s cold critique of the judicial system and its condemnation of the corrupting forces of co-option by official power retains plenty of contemporary relevance.
But the real revelation amongst the films was Fehér’s Passion, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, co-written by Tarr himself. Despite the narrative source material, Fehér’s long takes, stark black and white images, minimalist use of dialogue and brooding noir menace play down the film’s emphasis on story. Take, for instance, the moment in which ‘the man’ and ‘the wife’ plot the murder of her cuckolded husband: only at the very end of the single-shot scene does the camera glide onto them, until then having shown us nothing more than an industrial chimney spewing smoke. Narrative is not the film’s main concern. As in The Round-Up, here too we find a critique of political justice, though the words of ‘the priest’ and the film’s concluding quote from the Book of Revelations remind us that earthy laws are not the only ones by which we will be judged. The priest, however, claims that there are no crimes so great that we cannot be saved from them: God’s love is infinite, and with love everything can be repented. It’s arguable whether the scheming couple ever receive the note of grace the priest’s words offer, but the weight of their sins are never in doubt thanks to the film’s dark portrayal (a brutal, animalistic rape-cum-sex scene between the man and the wife surely makes light of the similar moment in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence). It’s perhaps true that, at times, there’s a sense the film is continuing longer than it needs to, while the perfect intensity of its first half slowly begins to ease off. Yet the film never outstays its welcome, ending as it does on a note of solid inevitability.