Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky | A Londoni férfi (The Man from London)

over his head
by Douglas Messerli

Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by George Simenon, screenplay), Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky (directors) A Londoni férfi (The Man from London) / 2007, USA 2008, 2009

One is tempted to include Béla Tarr's masterful The Man from London in a discussion of films such as those I have gathered under the rubric "Crime Pays," for at film's end the London inspector awards both the wife of the thief-murderer Brown (Ági Szites) and the opportunist-thief and murderer Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) a monetary award. But, as usual, Tarr turns any generic relationships with other films on its head, creating an original work that cannot quite be compared with others. In the majority of the "Crime Pays" genre, although the heroes may feel an occasional pang of guilt, their "getting away with murder" is a thing of pleasure, a joyful overturning of an already corrupt system. The heroes of these works are generally masterful crooks—or at least comically bumbling ones—whose careful and crafty maneuvers give us more pleasure than the authoritarian attempts to check their actions. We side with the crooks, and the fact that they come away unscathed demonstrates just how little they (and we) disrespect what is usually an equally corrupt moral code.

      In The Man from London, however, Tarr permits us very little joy in Maolin's dark and brooding gestures. From his position high above land and sea, working as a railway pointsman, the middle-aged worker moves with a Frankensteinian plod in a kind of zombie-like voyeurism, watching through the various viewpoints available to him incidents on ship, land, and water, ponderously evaluating their meaning and, ultimately, taking advantage of the situation at hand.

     A ship has docked, and in a drawn-out sequence of visual repetitions, Tarr ponderously forces us to observe, for long periods, what seems to be inaction. Yet the slow pace is purposeful in demonstrating not only the intensity of Maloin's voyeurism, which we are sharing, but signifies the meaningless boredom of that worker's nightly life, a man working alone, whose only major act is, once it has filled up with the ship's passengers, to set the train upon its designated track. Nothing much else happens, but what does occur is obviously an enormity of activity compared to the uneventful emptiness Maloin must endure night after night.

     Two Englishman can be heard talking, one evidently (since we hear only fragments of their conversation) warning the other of consequences. Slowly one of the men exits the ship, showing his papers and, instead of moving, as most of the others, into the awaiting train, walks forward along the edge of the dock. Eventually we see him standing a ways from the hull of the ship, where suddenly a brief case is tossed from ship to shore, with him retrieving it. With briefcase in hand, he walks along the quay, disappearing into the fog. A few minutes later, however, we see two men wrestling at the edge of the quay, shouting at one another, fighting evidently over the contents of the same briefcase. One man is thrown into the ocean along with his briefcase. The other hurries away to a nearby cafe.

      Tarr almost hides the fact that what we have been observing for nearly the first half-hour of this film, is also being observed by the pointsmen. We hear his footsteps, see bars of black and white as he moves sideways along the window patterns, but know little else about his existence. It is only now that he comes into being. With a long tow-hook in hand, Maolin slowly descends from his sanctuary, moving to the edge of the quay, and, with the help of the incoming tide, eventually retrieves the briefcase. Inside, as we discover once he has returned to his aerie, are stacks of British pounds, 55,000 we later discover. One by one, the methodical worker sets them upon the stove to dry.

     So begins the downfall of an everyday, hard working man, living in a decrepit apartment in this port town (originally filmed in Corsica before having to move the film company elsewhere). Maolin has no easy life. At daylight he slowly trudges back home, discovering along the way that his daughter, working as a clerk in a nearby butcher shop, has now been forced to clean the floors backing the alleyway. She is no beauty, and it is not an impossibly difficult job, yet he is outraged; for him, clearly, it is yet another insult in a life of small abuses, abuses which he, in turn, transfers to both daughter and his hard-working, loyal wife (Tilda Swinton, in the version of the film I saw, dubbed into French). His absurd logic is expressed in a chauvinist proclamation: everyone can see her ass. And a few days later he acts on his ridiculous perceptions, forcing his daughter, Henriette (Erika Bók) to leave her employment without notice.

     In what might almost be seen as a kind of incestuous pride, he takes her to the cafe for a drink and, on the way home, using some of his personal savings, buys her a fur stole. The purchase is a ridiculous one, the thin role of fur looking quite absurd around the neck of the horse-faced Henriette, but the act obviously helps to salve the years of silent abuse he has endured. His wife, quite understandably, insists he has lost his mind, that he is mad! But after all the abuses she hurls at him, it is clear in Swinton's silent facial frieze—a gesture only Tarr's patient (some describe it as "glacial") camera could capture—that her anger arises not only out of the foolishness of the act but a deep envy, a feeling of neglect for the years of cooking and serving and saving she has had to suffer.

     At the heart of Maolin's anger and meaningless acts, we realize, is his growing sense of guilt, a feeling—reinforced by being trailed by one of the thieves, Brown—that he has gotten in over his head. Maolin may not yet understand the consequence of his acts, but he senses something amiss, suddenly, in his life. He has money that he dare not and, because it is in British pounds, cannot expend. The appearance of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), the man from London, further unsettles him. Having tracked down Brown, Morrison lays out his cards, explaining why they suspect him and offering him his freedom and two weekends of theater sales if he returns the money. Brown's answer is to slip from Morrison's watch, escaping into a world of hunger as he goes on the lam.

     Morrison's next step is to bring in Mrs. Brown, painfully explaining to her the situation, and encouraging her to play along as he concocts a story of her son's illness, hoping to lure Brown back to her and into his net. Szirtes tearful reaction to Morrison's revelations are one of the emotional highlights of this dark tale in which feelings are otherwise mostly hidden and bottled up.

     Overhearing much of these cafe conversations, Maolin is increasingly made uneasy, so much so that when the clever inspector pays him a visit at the train-tower, he is clearly ill at ease, setting a pot of hot water upon the burner where he had previously dried out the bills in order to steam the windows over as if to hide the view from which he has observed the crimes. The discovery of the body of Brown's cohort, however, can only further hint that there was something to be observed.

     In a sudden twist of the plot, Henriette reveals to him, back in their apartment, that a man has entered their oceanside storage hut; she has locked him in. Gathering a few provisions, wine, bread, etc., Maolin slowly trudges off to the hut, opening the lock and entering. Again Tarr does the unexpected. For several long minutes we hear little and see nothing. What is going on inside is left to our imaginations.

     When Maolin exits, he is short of breath. In the very next scene he appears before Morrison, the briefcase in hand, admitting to Brown's murder. Ordering the cafe owner to keep Mrs. Brown there, he and Maolin return to the hut, Brown's wife disobediently following.

     The film ends, as I have suggested, with both Brown's wife's and Maolin's rewards, along with his being given a clean slate. Neither openly accepts the money, as Morrison slips the bills into her purse and into his pocket. Both their faces remain blank as they stare off into a future that cannot free them from their own falls from grace.

     Tarr's study of the moral breakdown of order and society, along with the individual's involvement in that collapse cannot exactly be described as subtle, but, in its long visual manifestations of the turmoil of the inner soul suffering in such a world, is certainly powerful and cerebrally moving. That the film, time and again, was waylaid by individuals and corporations seemingly determined to see that it would never be shot, still evokes such a powerful message is almost a miracle. And if it is not quite up to the cinematic levels obtained by the director's Sátántango and Werckmesiter Harmonies, it only reiterates how brilliant Tarr is as a filmmaker.

Los Angeles, April 24, 2012

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