Béla Tarr’s mid-80’s slice of communist-era Hungarian miserablism has a new DVD release on Artificial Eye.
Veteran Hungarian director Béla Tarr is best known for his austere – and often epic length – philosophically inclined films about the human condition, most recently The Turin Horse from 2011. The films of his ‘mature period’ are shot in striking black and white and are comprised of just a handful of very long, static takes. It’s interesting then to take a look at a work from an earlier, rather different era of his career as a filmmaker; 1984’s Autumn Almanac. This is often seen as a landmark entry in his filmography because it marks the transition point between his social realist period and the later, (even bleaker) style with which he gained international acclaim.
Autumn Almanac is set entirely in the apartment of Hédi (Hédi Temessy), a woman of advancing years who is suffering from an undisclosed – and apparently terminal – illness. The apartment manages to be both spacious yet utterly claustrophobic, in large part due to cleverly stylised lighting. With Hédi in the flat are her son János, a teacher called Tibor, a barber named Miklós and his girlfriend Anna. The plot consists of a series of conversations (and altercations both verbal and physical) between these five characters – mostly two at a time – as they connive and scheme to the others’ detriment. It’s probably reasonable to say that none of the characters (with the possible exception of Hédi) are even slightly sympathetic, and more than one are downright loathsome.
The film begins with the depressed Hédi talking with Miklós in a smoke-filled room, regarding the possibility of him finding someone to kill her. She does this in an off-hand, even jovial way before casually dismissing her own idea while Miklós listens passively. This opening more or less sums up the nihilistic mood and worldview of the whole film, and although there are moments of jet-black humour the message here can be boiled down to ‘hell is other people’. The characters’ actions are entirely driven by self-interest, mostly in the pursuit of getting their hands on Hédi’s considerable wealth. We first see the manipulative Anna administering a syringe of some never-explained medicine to Hédi and for one Machiavellian reason or other, she sleeps with each of the three male characters. Worse however, is Hédi’s aggressive and entitled son János who offers nothing but greed and brute violence.
The performances are all very believable, especially during the less melodramatic passages. Hédi Temessy’s central matriarch and Erika Bodnár’s scheming Anna are the most developed of the ensemble, and are both played with a great deal of nuance. The cinematography (especially in the film’s earlier scenes) is at times stunning, featuring impressive tracking shots around the gloomy apartment and the characters are often bathed in colours both warm and cold. During two tense scenes in which Miklós threatens (and then assaults) the hapless Tibor, Tarr’s camera assumes a birds eye view and even a ‘worms eye view’, from beneath the floorboards. It’s artistic flourishes like these (and a couple of brief surreal scenes) which help separate this from his earlier, purely social realist work. The score is evocative but also undeniably dated, especially where synthesizers take centre stage. In fact the audio in general is where the disc is most let down, with a fairly high noise level throughout and audible ‘pops’ occurring repeatedly at the beginning of each scene.
Overall, despite impressive performances and interesting technical aspects, it’s difficult to recommend such a singularly depressing film. For those interested in the more formative work of one of Europe’s most celebrated directors however, Autumn Almanac may prove an interesting watch.
Subtitles are available in English only, and there are no extras on the disc.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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