Style over substance.
That is the plaint of many a critic when they come across a film or book or any work of art they simply do not like, but which has undeniable merit, at least technically, if not in a few other measures, as well. But, the fact is that my opening words have little to do with most of the gripes labeled such. In fact, the reality is that while there indeed are such artworks for which the opening plaint is valid, far more often the correct plaint is good style, poor execution. Perhaps I have not encountered before a better example of this than the latest film by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, 2007’s The Man From London (or in Hungarian, “A Londoni Férfi”). Anyone familiar with any of the later films of Béla Tarr, when he reputedly became Béla Tarr-filmmeister, will recognize that, stylistically, this film is brilliant. Where it fails, however, is in the way most films fail — a poor screenplay; and in the way that great filmmakers often do, once they’ve reached a certain artistic level they start ripping off their own greater, earlier works (and this is a Tarr work, through and through despite the claim that Ágnes Hranitzky was a co-director).
Before I assail the thin and inconsequential screenplay, let me tackle the plunder from oneself that envelops this film. It’s been seen in filmmakers as diverse as Carl Theodor Dreyer (“Gertrud”), Martin Scorsese (“Gangs Of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed“), and Ingmar Bergman (“Saraband”), but the king of this malady has to be Woody Allen. Look at any of his post-Golden Age (1977-1992) films, and it’s clear that Allen steals from himself far more than he ever stole from Bergman or Federico Fellini. Sometimes it’s a line, a scene, or a whole film. What is “Deconstructing Harry” but a déclassé “Stardust Memories?” And sometimes the films he makes are merely lesser rehashes, or films that are rehashes of parts of superior films. Both “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” while excellent films, are déclassé in comparison to the majestic “Crimes And Misdemeanors.” To be added to this list is Béla Tarr, for The Man From London is an okay, solid film, at best. It is not at that level for the same reason Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, “Three Monkeys,” tanked — which is that its script was a bad soap opera, despite great cinematography, but because The Man From London is a film that simply has nothing of any depth to say on death or murder (the claimed subjects of the film), and worse, Tarr does not say anything of heft likely because he has run out of visual ideas. Prior to this film, I’d seen (in order) 1988’s “Damnation,” 1994’s “Satantango,” and 2000’s “Werckmeister Harmonies,” and each film only got better than the last. And, given the excellent starting quality of Damnation, that’s saying something.
Damnation had an animal vitality that this film lacks. “Satantango” had a daring of form and subject matter that this film lacks. “Werckmeister Harmonies” (the best of the four films) had an emotional gravitas and narrative hold that this film lacks. Yet, each of these films had multiple scenes or moments that were repeated in The Man From London, except, in every instance, the scene or moment in this film is inferior to the earlier versions in the earlier films (sometimes because it simply lacks the artistic daring or skill, but just as often because the film at hand simply does not require such a scene). Tarr is trying to hammer a square peg into a too small round hole, thus showing this film is not born of a Muse, but born of roteness. Tarr is going through the motions, cobbling together a film out of habit, not vision. But, more on that in a bit.
Let me give the single most egregious examples of self-plagiarism (both visual and thematic elements) that Tarr indulges in, from each of his three prior mentioned films. From “Damnation,” Tarr takes that film’s bravura opening scene of a tramway of mining buckets that recesses into the apartment of a lonely man, pulls back around him, and transmogrifies it into The Man From London‘s similarly constructed, multiple scenes of its lead character, Maloin, gazing over the French harbor/train depot (although reportedly shot in Portugal) that he is night watchman over, and having the camera pull back and forth from outside the windows to inside. The problem is that, in the earlier film, the opening shot occurs once, and, obviously, at the film’s opening, thus setting up that film’s idea of the illusiveness of life — later recapitulated in other scenes, but using other methods. In this film, Tarr uses the technique of gesturing in and out of Maloin’s office several times, and not at the film’s start. This vitiates the impact of the technique, and its declaration as a de facto idée fixe for the film. Plus, the repetition undercuts the power of the technique and the visuals of what occurs outside of Maloin’s window are simply not as compelling to watch, nor as they as masterfully orchestrated, as the opening from “Damnation.” From “Satantango,” Tarr does the almost inverse of what he did with the work from “Damnation” — he takes several great scenes of people at a bar, and sometimes dancing, and invokes a similar scene in a pool hall, in The Man From London. But, unlike a similar single scene of dancing from “Werckmeister Harmonies,” which illuminates the lead character’s inner self, the scene in this film plays as a sort of grotesque, tossed in just for shock value. In “Satantango,” the scenes in the bar play out much longer, and one scene, in particular, is shown from two different perspectives at two different points in the film. This causes a parallax absent in the pool hall scene, for we get no parallax, nor does the scene highlight the film’s main character — the grotesques are walk-ons, and not the intimately sketched characters of “Satantango.” Again, Tarr is just going through the motions. Finally, from “Werckmeister Harmonies,” we get The Man From London‘s opening scene, which tracks up from the water in the harbor overseen by Maloin, and onto the docked ship the titular character of the film may be aboard. The musical scoring and the almost fetishistic lingering of the camera recall the scene in the earlier film where its lead character is cosmically stirred by peering into the eye of a dead whale. But, as with the scene stolen from “Damnation,” the scene in this latest film is also misplaced. The reason the whale eye seen in “Werckmeister Harmonies” is so moving is a) it is well scored, and b) we know the character, identify with him as an everyman, and can sense the import the moment will bring to him (and us). By contrast, the scene in this film opens the film, and appears before any human characters are introduced, so it lacks “b,” and, compared to the music in the whale scene of the earlier film, the music is much more harsh and overdone. We, the audience, are supposed to be impressed with the ship and the cinematography of it, as we are with the whale scene, but it just plays out as Tarr blowing his own horn in a fanfare for something that does not follow in the film.
And this touches upon another major flaw in the film, the scoring by Mihály Vig. Vig’s compositions in the preceding film with Tarr, “Werckmeister Harmonies,” was sublime and sparely used, but from this film’s opening scene, with the camera slowly trolling up the docked ship, the music is as heavyhanded as one of the bad scores by the schizophrenic Philip Glass — especially the accordion music which, while leaden and enervating in this film, was so energizing in “Satantango.” The camera work by Fred Kelemen is sublime, and rightly praised in most critical takes on the film, but, in reality, it’s the only real positive in this film — albeit a monumentally great positive. But, before I hit on the failed screenplay, I must mention another abject failure of this film — its dubbing. The film is presumably set in France, since the bulk of characters speak it — with a bit of some Slavic languages tossed in. But, there is also English spoken, in use by British actress Tilda Swinton as Maloin’s wife. Yet, Swinton’s voice is dubbed into French and the use of Slavic actors with voices dubbed into French and English is just annoying — even more annoying is that many critics simply do not seem to realize that French is being spoken in the film, often claiming certain actors clearly speaking French are speaking Hungarian! Now, usually I do not mind even poor dubbing, as its far preferable to even good subtitling, but here the viewer gets the worst of both. We get poor dubbing and poor subtitling, as much goes untranslated, and what is translated is in white font, often difficult to make out as it blanches against the screen. This is simply unacceptable, and shows a real contempt for the viewer by Tarr, as well as laziness on the director’s part. In cases like this you either get your actors to learn their roles phonetically (as he did in the far better dubbed “Werckmeister Harmonies”), then subtitle them (after all, none of the characters has many lines, especially Swinton — in a de facto cameo), or you bite the bullet on realism, hire all actors who can speak one language, and just “pretend,” as they did in ye olden golden days of film, that the, say, French or English heard is really whatever the natal language is. In short, the aural elements of this film — the speaking roles and scoring, are an utter disaster!
And the screenplay is little better. Adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon, Tarr and his pal, László Krasznahorkai, have created a screenplay of jagged fragments that simply never cohere into a whole. The plot is not just confusing — as many critics claim of films they do not understand — merely simplistic and not believable in its own diegetic timeline. The film, and its ad campaign, have tried to make this into a film noir, revolving about a murder and a coverup. But, that simply is not what the film is about. The film follows Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), the night watchman at a local harbor and railyard, after he witnesses some subterfuge on a boat, followed by fisticuffs on a pier, in which one of the two combatants falls off the pier and into the drink. As shown on camera, the supposed death is clearly not murder, but an accident, or self-defense. Maloin then goes to the pier, after the survivor leaves, and retrieves a suitcase full of money. Now, it’s never detailed, but strongly implied that this is related to the docked ship where some sort of illegal transactions are transpiring. We then follow Maloin to his home, and there are some great scenes of him trying to get to sleep and dreaming of the prior night. We also see him getting protective of his daughter, Henriette (Erika Bok), when she is seemingly demoted at her menial labor job, and arguing with his nameless wife, played by Swinton (who comes off as a typical harridan). But, all of these scenes with other characters, no matter how well filmed, feel tired and rote. By contrast, in Tarr’s earlier “Satantango,” the actress Bok played a small girl who has some raw and violent scenes where she wrestles with then kills her cat. Despite the nature of the scenes, they elucidated both the character Bok played, as well as one of the major plot points and themes of that film. No such corresponding scene exists in this film. It lacks the rawness of the cat scene from “Satantango” and the magic and majesty of the whale scene from “Werckmeister Harmonies.”
As The Man From London plays out, we see the intrusion of two Englishman — a younger one named Brown (Janos Derzsi), who seems to end up killed (how and why is never explained), and an older one, an Inspector (Istvan Lenart). Both actors are poorly dubbed, neither give sterling performances, and Maloin’s confession to killing Brown makes no sense, nor does Henriette’s locking him in “the hut” where he dies. One might presume that Brown was looking for the suitcase filled with money, that Maloin purloined, as Brown is shown shadowing Maloin in several scenes (and Maloin’s dream), but how he ends up in the hut (did Maloin hide the suitcase there?) and dead is never explained, much less why Maloin will confess to it when clearly he did not do it (does he believe Henriette killed him?). Even more, we are never sure Brown was the man fighting with the first dead man, or merely an assistant to the Inspector — thus we do not know if his motives are to help solve or cover up the so-called “crime?” But, the true sign of the film’s failure is that none of this arouses any empathy nor a desire to even narratively reconcile, because the viewer simply does not care for any of the cardboard characters, even for Brown’s widow (Ági Szirtes), upon whose heartbroken face the film ends in a whiteout. Compare this to characters in other films of Tarr, and the utter lack of complexity in these characters is stark.
As for the DVD, put out by Artificial Eye, in Region 2, it’s subpar when compared to their usual quality. The DVD subtitles and dubbing, as mentioned, are bad, although only the subtitles would be the DVD’s fault. The film is shown in a 16:9 aspect ratio. But the package comes with very skimpy extras — a mediocre interview with Tarr (who lapses between English and Hungarian) — and not even a booklet nor theatrical trailer, much less an audio commentary. Even the DVD sleeve wrongly lists the film’s time at approximately 90 minutes. This is true if 130 minutes, or 40 minutes’ leeway can be considered approximate.
Also annoying is scanning the reviews of the film and seeing so many critics caught cheating, yet again. I hate critical cribbing — the practice of not even engaging a work of art, but merely copying ideas or claims made by others and grafting them into one’s own work. The two most egregious examples of this that stick in my craw are the claims regarding character names that simply are not so in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” and Alain Resnais’s “Last Year In Marienbad.” This practice shows why criticism has fallen to desuetude in most cultural contexts. In this film, the most repeated error is one grafted from the film’s ad campaign — that there was a murder. Yet, seemingly no critics have watched the scene of the fight on the pier, nor recognized that there is no visual evidence of foul play in the presumed death of Brown. So, why repeat these fallacies? My guess is that, as film critic Ray Carney has often noted, most of what passes for film criticism, these days, is merely a variant form of the film’s advertising campaign. And this ties back to the idea that this film is all about style over substance. Yes, there’s not much substance to this film, but had it been better executed, in terms of the mise-en-scenes, the scoring, a lack of poor self-plagiarism, etc., the thin substance of the film would have been a non-issue. Some defenders of the film even try to gloss over the poor screenplay by claiming the plot simply “meander”. But this is no more or less true than in any other of Tarr’s films. It has no qualitative bearing on why this film fails and the others succeed, often brilliantly. No, meandering is not its sin, unconnectedness is. The individual scenes (no matter if well or poorly crafted) never cohere with each other; they are a jagged hodgepodge. The upshot is that Tarr may be on a long downward slide from here. I hope not, for the sake of cinema, but he just seems to have nothing left to say and no original ways to say it. “Werckmeister Harmonies” may have been his acme. And calling a black and white film, set mostly at night, a film noir, does not cover its sins. It simply is not film noir, not even by Tarrian standards. Perhaps the attempt to make a film noir so perplexed Tarr that it is the main reason for this film’s failing, but that is speculation, not criticism. Tarr is famously quoted in an interview as stating, “I believe that you keep making the same film throughout your whole life.” More accurately, this film disproves that, unless one equates self-plagiarism from better works with making the same film.
Nevertheless, as disappointing as The Man From London is, it is not the total garbage that most Hollywood films ejaculate into the culture. It is only a “relative” failure, from an acknowledged master of the art form; therefore it’s still a good, solid film, and one worth watching, if only to use as a ground in comparison to his better, earlier films. And, hopefully, like Ceylan from his last film, Tarr will recognize this failure and return to his better form in his next film. That’s one lesson Hollywood never seems to learn.