Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 19:42
While a resident of Berlin, I often made my way over to the library of a particular French institute up on scenic Kurfürstendamm (unable to extricate myself from its email list, I can report that the institute is still running smoothly). That year was also the centennial of a certain French author’s birth, and posters of him and his equally renowned companion littered the institute’s wall space. His work, however, has never found permanent property on my shelves: my experimentation encompassed one lugubrious novel, his autobiography, some literary criticism involving spheres and cubes, and then this play, all of which — well, the less said about them, the better. That same year, the films of this Hungarian director first shimmered across my radar, although his name had not been wholly unfamiliar. So it was with no small irony that a review warned me, just as preparations had been made to take in his first major film, that Tarr was inspired by Huis clos (this bit of information still graces the Netflix sleeve). Smiling at the trivial coincidence, I proceeded in the hope that it might surpass its rather moribund forerunner. And, wonderful to relate, it most certainly does.
There are five characters in Almanac of Fall: Hédi, an attractive woman of about sixty and puller of the purse-strings; János, her parasitic, violent, and absolutely worthless son; Anna, a frisky and manipulative nurse hired to give Hédi her daily injections (often filmed at very close range); Tibor, an old drunk and debtor who has let life have its way with him; and Miklós, a learned but bitter man who cannot seem to understand what he could possibly be doing with these miscreants. This volatile quintet lives together in a large apartment that no one seems to leave, or, for that matter, to be able to leave. The attendant claustrophobia, almost like that of an apocalyptic bomb shelter, is real and stifling and gives us the distinct impression of being underground even if there are windows and, at times, light. Despite this curious conceit no one appears to wonder why there is "no exit," although the characters all take turns screaming, grabbing each other by the shoulders or collar, and saying “get out" (easily the film's most frequently repeated line). In other words, we are looking at a picture of hell.
Hell or limbo, to be more specific. Or some combination of the two, which then must be hell, because hell can be combined with anything and still be hell (to drive the point home, the film's epigraph is from Pushkin's poem "Demons"). Here each person continues to grapple with problems he or she presumably had when "alive": Hédi is worried about her money and her rat of an offspring; János continues his rampage of boozing and whoring, although the latter can now only be carried out with Anna; Anna is looking for ways to get both money and sex; Tibor, pickled round the clock, is still calling his creditors and asking for extensions, and even produces a pawnshop receipt although we're not quite clear about how he procured it; and Miklós continues hemming and hawing his way through the mysteries of the universe while occasionally manning the piano. At one point late in the film, he asks Hédi the question we have been asking ourselves all along: "Are we alive or not? What is this leading to?" After both of them understand they have no answer, he then adds the following observation:
Everyone shapes peace and quiet to his own image and thinks it’s good. There’s only one peace. And if there are two of them, then one of them isn’t peace.
Peace is what Miklós wants, but he certainly can't speak for everyone. In this hell—limbo there is no possibility of engaging in anything except one's worst habits. There is also no salvation, because there can only be one type of salvation and these characters are obviously not so lucky. The comparisons to Huis clos are, on a basic level, well-founded: there, three characters (excluding a valet who plays the part of a prison warden) are trapped in a room — an adulterer, an adulteress, and a manipulative lesbian who tries to ingratiate herself with each of them — with the main difference being that they are fully aware they do not belong "in camera." The names of the characters share syllables (Garcin, Inès, Estelle), so that, in the end, they are inexorably chained to one another as punishment for all eternity, inducing Garcin to utter the play's most famous line.
Tarr made this film in 1985 at the precocious age of thirty (the same age at which his cinematic ancestor produced his first masterpiece) in a Hungary that, while recalcitrant, was far from free. Like so many young aesthetes, Tarr envisions an artistic work of beauty as a composite of key moments that reveal truths about the characters. Plot, as he himself has stated, is merely a contrivance; nothing really happens and people simply "flee from one state to another." This approach would suggest an episodic structure, but somehow the scenes in Almanac of Fall all seem to hang together. Monologues or dialogues are alternated with wordless scenes with odd, almost kitschy music in the background that reminds the viewer of the situation's banality. In one scene a seated Hédi receives her shot while everyone else, almost glamorously clad, stands around impatiently as if waiting to hear the terms of her will and testament. In another, Hédi is seen talking on the phone before a massive wall mirror, which really makes it look like she’s handling both ends of the conversation, especially since the mirror is so positioned as to render the reflection’s mouth only rarely visible. Many critics have rightly marveled at a struggle filmed from beneath what appears to be a glass floor (Tarr makes sure we can observe the characters caged from any angle). But the last scene, in which one of them finally leaves, may well be the best. Hédi starts singing a Hungarian version of this famous song, and an event takes place because she concedes that it is long overdue. And, for the first time, some of the characters actually look pleased. At least now there are only four of them.