December 03, 2007

Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994)

So this is effectively THE greatest cinematic achievement of the 1990s.

I’m not even going to attempt to deconstruct the thematics behind this, because they’re far too daunting for me to handle at present. It really is absolutely extraordinary though – Tarr uses his 7hr+ length as a platform to explore the possibilities of the medium itself. At various points, Sátántangó’s style endeavours toward: gritty realism, expressionist fantasy, poetic sur-realism and finally, enigmatic modernity. If these terms contradict each other in any way, it’s intentional, not to mention appropriate: I doubt that Tarr intends for us to make sense of his work (and really, I’m not sure if anyone really could), it’s more a case of his wanting us to ‘feel’ it on a purely visceral level.

To this end, his well-documented use of the long-take comes into play. Those familiar with the more widely-seen Werckmeister Harmonies will know what to expect, but Sátántangó’s shots demand much more from the viewer – to the point where the film often left me physically exhausted. In spite of this, I was nonetheless thrilled by the director’s experiments. Tarr plays on his audience’s inherent fear of the unknown, exploiting the film’s otherworldly mysteries to the max and completely disregarding traditional expectations of narrative in the process. The pacing for example, is irksome but only because Tarr succeeds in thwarting conventions to the point where we don’t know what the hell he’s going to pull off next, and any dramatic tension that we feel is inevitably a result of this exercise. His perplexing world is aided by a further dimension whereby he sculpts a temporal complexity that layers and overlaps scenes in order to enrich our understanding (I use the term loosely) of what’s occurring on-screen.

I should really mention the fact that the film deals with a community of farmers in rural Hungary. The characters, as Tarr paints them, are ugly, repulsive and in short: not the sort of people that one would wish to spend seven hours with. It’s a testament to the success of Tarr’s exquisitely choreographed mise-en-scene (not to mention the lush use of sound and the interlacement of a wicked brand of very dry humour) that the experiment pays off – some of the scenes take one’s breath away, particularly those in which animals are concerned: Tarr’s pessimistic view of humanity is often compared to the superior ‘community’ in the animal world. Most notable from these however, is a scene which highlights the stark reality of isolation in this society: the segment in which we’re introduced to the young girl (and later, her cat…) As soon as it began, I was foolish enough to become slightly disenchanted with Tarr – surely he wouldn’t use so blatant a metaphor to explore the concept of innocence in such a grotesque world, right? Rest assured, he doesn’t, and what does ensue is the most excruciating yet gripping sequence that I’ve probably ever encountered – and all the while, Tarr succeeds in colouring it with a sense of poignancy that culminates in a final act of transcendence that is perhaps the single most important image in the film. And oh my GOD, the cat!!

I said earlier that I didn’t want to discuss the thematic resonance of the film – but I’ll digress for a second to wonder out loud about the relevance of allegory. It’s apparent that there are certain ideas being explored here: community (and therefore, perhaps commun_ism_?), poverty, social order etc. (I’m not doing the film any justice, but you’ll understand when you watch it.) There’s definitely a spiritual dimension to the world as well, with the character of Irmiás being presented as an, admittedly fraudulent, Christ-like figure. I’m not sure how far to pursue this idea, and if anyone who’s seen the film can help me I’d be pretty grateful? Needless to say, the conclusion, with the visual inverse of ”...and then there was light” provides much food for thought.

Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is that any fans of cinema owe it to themselves to watch this. It’s available on a beautiful Artificial Eye box set so y’know, watch it NOW!

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