Why the Long Face?

by |
02/01/2012 4:00 AM |

The Turin Horse
Directed by Béla Tarr

Whether or not The Turin Horse turns out to be Béla Tarr’s last film, as the gnostic, gnomic Hungarian master has claimed it will be, the sense of finality is absolute. Not just because the film spans six days which seem to undo the work of the first six, concluding with a worldly and cinematic dying of the light, but because both form and content is here defined by exhaustion, refusal, negation.

As in any disaster movie, the animals know what’s up before the humans. The title, it’s explained in rusty, folkloric voiceover, refers to the event said to have precipitated Nietzsche’s mental breakdown. Leaving his lodgings in Turin, the philosopher saw a cabman beating his unmoving nag; weeping he intervened, embracing the horse and collapsing. Cue madness, death, and the 20th century.

The Turin Horse’s first scene, though, is all motion, as an old man drives his carthorse past bare stick-figure foliage and through swirling dust, as the camera tracks alongside, accompanied by the grave cello and creaky organ of Mihály Víg’s dirgelike, ubiquitous score. As the man and his adult daughter stable the horse, Tarr’s camera follows in a slightly low angle, the better to capture the way they hunch over and bundle up against the wind, which howls louder on every subsequent morning, as the daughter crosses the yard to draw water from the well, and seems to be erasing the earth in a swirl of dead leaves and stripped topsoil.

After this overture, Tarr, father and daughter hunker down to watch the world blow away; external evidence of the cataclysm is provided via voiceover, and two visits: a dandyish wanderer begs a bottle of brandy, and croaks a monologue on the absence of god; a band of gypsies tend to their horses, and leave the daughter with a book of (spurious) scripture promising a cleansing of the corrupted world. Physical incapacity precedes psychic unwillingness: the old man has tremors, and his daughter helps him into and out of the boots and scratchy sweaters he wears over his long underwear, but he snarlingly, ineffectually splits logs down to splinters with a hatchet, and whips the stubbornly still, stoic horse (“Why don’t you eat?”, the daughter asks the horse later).

The Turin Horse will be preceded at the Film Society of Lincoln Center by a complete retrospective of Tarr’s films (often made in collaboration with Turin Horse’s editor, his wife Ágnes Hranitzky, and co-writer, the novelist László Krasznahorkai), running February 3rd through the 8th. Most notably, the series spotlights his oracular long takes, which circle and isolate moments from woolly ritual. The control of action and perspective, as well as lighting, focus and movement, is ravishing, and his evident longwinded technical virtuosity encourages us to search for mystic depths.

But here, outside is fit for man nor beast, so Tarr’s godlike camera is mostly cramped and cooped up, reluctantly and then resignedly obstructed by beams or hanging laundry, or watching and sighing along with father or daughter as they sit before their kitchen window onto the world. This two-and-a-half-hour film is comprised of only a couple dozen shots—par for Tarr, but he often settles on elliptical close-ups of plates or glasses. All creation is circumscribed to the small valley where the house sits, and reduced to an elemental asceticism: days consist of primal menial tasks like stoking the wood stove, and dinner, every night, is a single boiled potato (a Jeanne Dielman tribute?), eaten hot, with bare hands, and then finally not at all.

But Tarr does think of his audience more than his obscurantist rep, or the out-of-time peasant faces populating his films, might suggest. He varies coverage for each daily task; the rhythm of repetition and interruption reveals a tight hand in editing. And there’s his wizened, boozy black humor, with its hoarse laughs at survivalist banalities and historical inconsequentiality—the humor of people who meet the end of the world with a mulish, phlegmy “Fuck.”

Opens February 10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center