14 June 2009

The man from London (A londoni férfi)
The man from London -- DVD cover
directed by Béla Tarr (with Ágnes Hranitzky)
2007 / Hungary / France / Germany /
XXXXXXblack & white / 133 minutes (+ Béla Tarr interview)
French / English with some optional English subtitles
DVD from Artificial Eye (UK – region 2 / PAL)
Béla Tarr
director Béla Tarr
Make no mistake about it – Béla Tarr is not afraid of the dark. His films are filled with darkness, both visual and otherwise. Scenes that take place outdoors during the day still have an overriding grey weight to them – perhaps a visual representation of the cultural and emotional burdens borne by the characters that populate his films. Time moves slowly, at times almost excruciatingly so – all the better to allow the film to get under the viewers’ collective skin.
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The man from London is based on a novel by famed Belgian writer Georges Simenon, and is set in what appears to be a smallish French coastal city. The story centers around a nightshift dockwatchman, Maloin – his name is only revealed well into the film, further underscoring the anonymity that he feels in both his work and homelife. One night on the job, he witnesses a crime from his vantage point high above the pier – an apparent murder, preceded and followed by shady goings-on perpetrated by characters that look as if they could have stepped full-blown from a 1940s film noir creation. He watches with an almost bored fascination, not alerting any authorities about what he has seen – his actions from this point form the crux of the plot, causing him to sink deeper and deeper into a moral dilemma from which, soon enough, there is no real escape that will leave no harm in its wake.
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Maloin’s homelife is even bleaker than his job – he and his family survive as best they can on his wages and those earned by his daughter Henriette, who works, against his wishes, at the local butcher shop. He continually nags her to quit, complaining that he doesn’t ‘want people watching her arse all day’. For her part, Henriette is pretty much a silent participant in daily events – she rarely speaks, and the expression that inhabits her face most of the time is one of deep-seeded resignation to her lot in life. Maloin’s wife does her best to care for her husband and daughter, but is openly dissatisfied with the family’s situation. In one scene, when Maloin comes home from work and goes to bed, she pulls heavy drapes closed to block the light pouring in from outside – light that seems to be an intrusion into the dark world the family inhabits.
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The watchman’s actions in wake of the murder bring a large sum of ‘found’ cash into his possession – it is this factor, a sudden bounty inserting itself into the situation, which makes his dilemma more difficult. He doesn’t tell his wife or daughter about the money – but in a move that seems to be fostered out of guilt over his inadequacy as a provider, he takes his daughter to a furrier and buys an expensive stole for her after she admires one worn by an aging prostitute in a tavern. Maloin’s wife is incredulous and furious at this extravagance, which he still stubbornly – guiltily? – refuses to explain, and Henriette glumly agrees to return the stole the following day. This lack of communication between Maloin and his family is just one more symptom of the alienation and depression weighing upon him.
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Things get complicated when one of the thugs – Brown by name, the titular character – involved in the murder begins to suspect that the watchman has retrieved the missing money. Maloin begins to sense that he’s being watched, and has this suspicion verified when he looks out of his bedroom window to see Brown on the street, looking up. An English detective arrives, apparently hired by those from whom the money was originally taken, looking for Brown – he brings Brown’s wife along, urging her to aid him in coaxing her husband out of hiding.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that things are going to turn out well for no one – Brown is being increasingly pursued, threatened with prosecution for theft and murder, and Maloin is increasingly troubled by a decision that he simply cannot make – to somehow manage to keep the money and conceal it, or to return it and have to come up with an explanation as to why he didn’t report the murder and the case of loot. Tarr brings all of the plot elements to a conclusion very skillfully, but without the typical ‘nicely wrapped’ resolution that commercial films seem to favor – the ending here is awash with plotwater yet to be bailed, leaving the viewer to consider multiple angles and questions when it’s all over.

Tarr’s methods make The man from London instantly recognizable as one of his films – but that’s not to say they all look alike, or that his works are overly formulaic by any means. Aside from the aforementioned darkness, he loves long shots that not only almost physically immerse the viewer in the scene, but crank up anticipation and tension exponentially as well. The opening sequence in this film is wonderful – shot from the viewpoint of Maloin’s watchtower above the dock, through the dirty windows that surround his cramped domain, the camera pans back and forth to take in the scene below, moving almost imperceptibly. Not only is Tarr not afraid of the dark – he doesn’t allow himself to be rushed when committing his vision to film, making his work a must to avoid for the impatient viewer, at the same time a treasure for those who can allow themselves to be drawn into it without imposing time-centric limitations on the experience. The photography – in ultra-lush, low contrast black and white – by DOP Fred Keleman, who studied with Tarr, and with whom he has worked previously on the 1995 short Utazás as alföldön (Journey on the plain), is stunningly beautiful, and perfect in representing the director’s vision. The score, minimal though it may be, by longtime Tarr collaborator Mihály Vig, is absolutely perfect in cementing the overall mood of the film.

Here’s a brief trailer, courtesy of YouTube – it’ll give you a better idea of the look of the film than I could ever manage…

The one bonus item included in the Artificial Eye DVD is a nice one – an interview with Tarr, partly in English and partly in Hungarian (with English subtitles), offers a number of insights into the director’s processes and methods. Tarr stresses the human aspects of his films and characters, as well as his overall purposes in filmmaking this way : From the outset of the project usually our departure point is the actual character of the hero. And we ask what the person would do in a real life situation. And how can we furnish them with a real destiny? This is the exciting part, and this is the stage where we depart from the literary work…and we produce something that resembles the original a lot. That’s why I say we don’t translate literature into film, we translate literature back into life, and from this life experience we make a film.

He talks about positioning the camera at a low angle, looking up at his characters, as one of his favorite techniques when filming – it has the effect of more firmly placing the viewer in the character’s space, as well as filling the screen with the larger-than-life presence of characters that are in actuality, no larger-than-life than the viewer, made ‘large’ by the attention we are compelled to give them. He goes on to speak of conveying the emotions and realities of his characters and their situations to the viewers : What we know about film is that it’s the language of the definite. Film as a genre…is very definite. One can only shoot real things. Viewers…experience the same emotion (as the characters). That is why it’s worth making movies : to be able to show a human gaze or to say something about people without words. And to make you feel someone’s fate, that is the real challenge. This is why I like making films. He goes so far as to state that the dialogue is far less important than the actions and the emotions that are conveyed visually – at one point in the interview, he says, ‘…just watch it, don’t bother with the subs’.
The visuals contained in Tarr’s works are so rich and full of such strength of feeling that this last statement is less of an exaggeration than one might suppose. Immersing yourself in a Béla Tarr film is an incredibly enriching experience – if you’ve never seen one, I can’t recommend his work highly enough. Hopefully The man from London will see a North American DVD release, so that a wider slice of the US film public will have the opportunity to watch it. Until then, check out Werckmeister harmóniák (The Werckmeister harmonies), Kárhozat (Damnation), or the epic (over 7 hours, if you’re really ambitious and not in the least fidgety) Sátántangó. There are precious few directors making films today that approach the depth and scope of his work – these are films you shouldn’t pass up.

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