The Man From London Review
You might not think that Béla Tarr’s bleak, slow-moving meditations on the grubbier side of human nature, showing the capacity of man to aspire to something higher but ultimately be brought back down to earth to wallow in the mire, would have a lot in common with the works of the 1950’s French Crime Fiction writer Georges Simenon, but you might be surprised. If he takes a somewhat unique approach to the thriller genre, Tarr has shown that the detective film noir worldview is perfect for his purposes in Damnation and even Sátántangó, while outside of his rather more leisurely paced Maigret novels, Simenon’s crime fiction and non-genre work often takes on a dark character, the novels populated by little people in dead-end jobs or common professions, eking out a quiet miserable existence in small communities, ground down by troubled family lives and alcoholism, who succumb to a moment of passion or crime when the opportunity presents itself for escape or betterment.
Such is very much the case with Simenon’s The Man From London, and Béla Tarr approaches the dark and bleak qualities of the original scenario with almost complete fidelity, but making it so thoroughly his own that you’d almost think the novel was purposely written for him. In the little bars and cafés of a small French port, where drunken men dance to the mystical voice of the other in lively accordion music, Tarr finds exactly the same type of characters that populate his own films, particularly in the life of a railway switchman working down by the harbour. The tone of the film is established in the long, slow, largely silent opening shot (would you really expect anything less from Béla Tarr?), when two men who have just come off the boat from London get into a tussle on the jetty over a briefcase that they have smuggled past the customs, and one of them ends up in the sea, along with the briefcase.
All of this is observed dispassionately by Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) from the vantage point in his station above it all and, when he has the opportunity under the cover of darkness and with his familiarity of the tides in the harbour, he retrieves the case, dries out the large number of English banknotes that are contained inside and hides it away. For Maloin, a complete nobody, quietly resentful of his poverty, the insignificance of his position and the lack of respect accorded to his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók) as a shop assistant at a grocery store and constantly hounded by his wife (Tilda Swinton), this money represents an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of himself and his family. Is wanting to improve his situation through a found suitcase really a crime? Well, the English police, who have just travelled across the channel on the trail of the missing £60,000 contained in the case, evidently have very different views on the subject from the switchman.
Yes, the storyline from The Man From London is nothing more than that of a regular crime fiction. There would appear to be no greater purpose or higher political, social or religious context to be drawn out of the story – not that you could tell this with the complete gravity and length to which Béla Tarr portentuously draws out this relatively simple story. But there is evidently much more to it that this and the director realises that all such serious matters have their roots in basic human behaviours and actions. Tarr however is not going to lead the viewer by the nose, and his filming methods can be infuriating to anyone who expects dialogue, narrative or even symbolism to explain actions and intentions. By stubbornly resisting to conform to such narrative or even expectations of allegorical meaning that these long meticulously staged and choreographed sequences would seem to suggest, Tarr’s method nonetheless still exerts a powerful force in its glorification of the commonplace and the mundane – in humanity, with all its flaws and failings.
Just to take one random example of inconsequence from the film and show how Tarr makes it into something else entirely, consider the scene where Maloin having just retrieved the briefcase of money finishes his night-shift and walks into the café-bar. A stranger who we later discover is Mr Brown (János Derzsi), the man from London looking for his missing case, passes him at the entrance of the bar and looks inquiringly back as Maloin enters, mutters a few syllables of small-talk to the barman and sits down to play a game of chess. Involving a couple of long tracking shots, this scene passes by in real time, perhaps even slower than real time, time in fact almost standing still. Nothing significant happens, yet the scene is imbued with sense of something momentous having just occurred. In the silence and the space that Tarr creates and holds, the viewer is invited to give the scene that significance, to take in the totality of the moment, to feel the glare of suspicion of Brown on the guilty shoulders of Maloin from outside the door as he sits down in the bar. It never shows you that this is the case, but by suspending the moment, it forces the viewer to consider everything in the surrounding environment and in the inner environment of the characters minds.
The same principle is applied throughout, Tarr demonstrating a complete mastery of the mise-en-scène, finding a way to express the narrative on the page in pure images and sound and in so doing, finding a way to do it with complete fidelity to the source. Every scene is perfectly framed and choreographed into long tracking shots, capturing the rhythm of the characters’ existence and the nature of their environment in sound and movement. Every action is treated with the same sense of utmost gravity and impartiality, whether it’s a body fished out of the harbour, a family dispute or a drunken dance of some barflies around a pool table – there’s no dynamic to suggest that one is more significant than the other. They are all of equal importance... or, depending on how much credence you are willing to give this technique, they are all of equal irrelevance. Nothing happens, the director drags each scene out beyond all reasonable length and endurance, and ultimately to little purpose. Mannered or expressive, style over substance, hypnotic or soporific – the choice is yours.
Even though he rushes the ending a little (perhaps the only time anyone has ever said that the pace of a Béla Tarr film is precipitous), the director’s approach to the adaptation of L’homme de Londres and his method could not be more appropriate and the results could not be more accurate and faithful to Simenon’s original novel. Except in one respect - and it’s here that the film displays its only weakness - in the choice of language. None of the actors are French, yet they are all dubbed into French – and, bizarrely, French with a foreign accent at that. Nor are the English-dubbed actors English. Not only is the lip-syncing poorly matched with mouth movements, but the voices are also a poor match for the faces. The film is at its best then with the unspoken, in the narrative and mood it creates out of the long, silent, contemplative moments and tracking shots, finding a perfect expression for the condition of his characters, for the pace of their lives, the uniformity and equanimity of their existence, where the insuperability of their own natures, through greed, pride, guilt or stupidity quickly drags any aspirations for something higher right back down to earth.
The Man From London is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The disc is not region encoded.
The film is presented anamorphically at its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with thin bars down the left and right-hand sides. One would imagine that this would be a very difficult film to encode well on Standard Definition DVD, with its strong monochrome contrasts and scenes that are sometimes shrouded in mist, but Artificial Eye’s presentation is excellent. Those stark black-and-white tones are perfectly represented, with strong, solid, well-defined blacks and good shadow detail. The image is crisp and clear without being overly sharpened, retaining the feel of the film print with gorgeous dancing grain levels. Mist and fog is also handled well, with only one or two sequences that are less well-encoded, revealing the limitations of the standard definition presentation in flattened blacks and some minor noise issues. The majority of the film however looks tremendous.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. I’m not aware if there is a surround mix for the film, but filled with long silent passages and pauses in speech, I would doubt that The Man From London would really benefit greatly from one. There is a light underlying hiss adding to the atmosphere of the film, particularly in its eerie silences. Dialogue is clear, crisp and well-toned, just not particularly well-dubbed to match lip movements or integrate into the film, but this is just part of the Tarr experience.
English subtitles are included and are optional. The font is white, small and unobtrusive, but clearly readable. They cover the French dialogue in the film only. There are no Hard of Hearing options for the English sections.
The only extra feature is an Interview with Béla Tarr (15:39). In it the director covers the long genesis, production and making of the film, which had year-long breaks here and there in-between. He talks about working with a multinational cast, and with actors like Hanna Schygulla and Tilda Swinton. On his approach to adapting literature to film he talks about the scripting process and working out camera shots with the cinematographer.
L’homme de Londres is not George Simenon’s best book and The Man from London is not Béla Tarr’s best film, but the “collaboration” between the two proves to be a good match, showing the strengths and common themes in both. For anyone familiar with the source material, it is certainly fascinating to see how Tarr takes pages of prose description and finds an equivalent way to represent it cinematically and largely silently on the screen without losing any of the detail and nuance. If you are a Béla Tarr fan, you couldn’t ask for more – this is the director doing what he is famed for and doing it exceptionally well in relation to the subject, but his uncompromising style isn’t going to win over any new converts. Artificial Eye’s presentation of the film is excellent, with a crisp anamorphic transfer and extras that provide some interesting views from the director himself in an interview.