It felt like fifteen minutes before the first words were spoken and when they were it almost broke the spell, like an intrusion. I was mesmerized by the glacially slow movement of the camera and how it saturates the viewer’s eye in textures of wall, glass and water. We are drenched in the fog, puddles, shadows and angles of divided white and blacks.
When the characters finally vocalize, their words take a subordinate place in the film narrative. This is movie-making which does its telling visually. It makes demands on us as all good art must. It disrupts our usual viewing pattern and forces a new ratio of our senses into play. I found myself first resisting and then yielding to the maestro’s direction. The intersecting lines and contrast of straight against curve set up the dialectic of opposing forces to follow.
The setting is an un-named seaport town where a ship is met by a train, all watched over from a tower by our protagonist, Meloin. The camera assumes his eyes as he observes the proceedings in his tedium. Tonight he witnesses a struggle on the quay between two men in which one shoves the other, along with his suitcase, into the water drowning him. Our observer waits and then fishes the case from the water. It contains 60,000 British pounds which is useless currency to the man without arousing suspicion. The moral question is posed.How the money affects Meloin and his routine is the subject of the film. It creates the interface of two realities; the watchman’s small universe, his chess partner, domestic troubles with his wife and indignity of his daughter’s job. The larger context is the aged police inspector, the man from London, concerned with a justice alien to the main character. These two realities suggest the position of an individual in a broken social order; how they might accidentally collide and set into motion a new consciousness.
Embedded as I am in Meloin’s conflict I am also uneasily at home in the value system of the inspector who could be from any elsewhere. In traditional detective stories a crime is solved and loose ends tidied up by the last scene. In Bela Tarr’s hands the thrills are reduced to their existential dread. Unanswered questions dangle as the screen fades to black in spite of the inspector’s attempts to impose his quick resolve. The greater mystery is human behavior and our tenuous hold on a shifting moral center.The movie may not hold the attention of the average moviegoer. When first shown at Cannes there were vacant seats by the last scene and probably more than a few who saw it as an opportunity to catch up on their sleep. However I find the images printed in my head like few films I have seen in recent years. While the cinematography called attention to itself at times and the music was somewhat grating I remain haunted by the deft composition of the scenes, the lighting and the spare power of the camera creating an emotional experience. Art, said Picasso, is the elimination of the unnecessary. Bela Tarr has cut to the bone.