Bela Tarr: The Man From London (2007) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Bela Tarr: The Man From London (2007)

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Every Tuesday Andrew will be examining the work of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

"We just talk about someone coming into the room and he wants something and the other guy who is sitting there doesn't want these things.  That's all."
-Bela Tarr-

Andrew COMMENTARYI'm facing a number of disappointments this week.  The first is that, until Bela Tarr is finished with The Turin Horse and it is released on DVD (which, given his cycle, will probably be in another 5 to 6 years) I am left without any more of his feature films to examine.  Yes, there is still more of his work for me to look at, but this final film left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

The Man From London is Bela Tarr's last feature film to date, and may be his second to last film ever if his rumored retirement after The Turin Horse is to be believed.  The Man From London is something of a genre piece, returning to some of Tarr's experimentation with noir.  Tarr's continues his tradition of lurid, nightmarish takes that stretch over ten minutes and mixes it with a plot a bit more traditionally noir than the one in Damnation.

Story has not always been Tarr's strong point.  he prefers to select a venue that allows him to operate within a specific emotional spectrum than allow the event's of the plot to drive any sort of "false" narrative.  The Man From London has a similarly simplistic plot, but one that allows him to draw out some of the most luscious cinematography that has ever graced his films.

No one can set the stage in the first ten minutes quite like Tarr.

In another tradition of Tarr "heroes" the plot centers around a man that is doomed to watch events unfurl rather than have any direct control over them.  Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) is a poor railway worker that watches the passengers load and unload from a nearby shipyard all night.  One shift, he looks outside to see someone kill another stranger over a disagreement that Maloin is not privy too.  Shortly thereafter, the suitcase the murdered party was carrying is tossed into the sea which Maloin decides to go fetch it.

It contains a large stash of money, and with this discovery Maloin becomes incredibly tense as he is lugging around this sum that someone is willing to kill for.  Within days a local named Brown (Janos Derzsi) is seen scurrying around the dockside looking for something, and noticing Maloin's convenient vantage point.  To complicate matters further, an investigator named Morrison (Istvan Lenart) arrives from London to begin inquiries into the stolen money.  Maloin's inaction in doing anything with the money is causing more of a ruckus in the town than intended, and he is forced to make some kind of decision about what to do.

Granted, most of Tarr's films don't have much more of a plot than what I've described, but The Man From London is curiously flat in it's chosen emotional playing field.  Tarr does a great job establishing a sense of bored loneliness that comes with Maloin's position in the opening thirty minutes, but the rest of the film meanders about in a way that I didn't expect froesm Tarr.  We're treated to various interludes of him playing chess with the bartender, and taking his paranoia and tension out on his wife (a poorly underutilized Tilda Swinton) and daughter (Erika Bok).

Mother and daughter in one of their few tense moments onscreen.

These scenes come as a sort of shock after the beginning because they're a bit of a dramatic disturbance compared to the effortless existentialism of Satantango and the strangely poetic feel of Wreckmeister Harmonies.  They seem to be the exact kind of distraction that Tarr generally loathes in films, and that they made it into the finished product is a bit of a mystery.

However, there is still the matter of Tarr's style, and he is in full control of it here.  The tone is nicely developed early on and, despite the occasional forays into scenes of high tension, he does an excellent job conveying Maloin's paranoia in the daylight.  It's a bit strange seeing so much brightness in a Tarr film, but he utilizes the light as an unsafe zone for Maloin to be in - a harsh reality that he can't escape from.  There are a number of gorgeous sequences, the opening at the dockyard, when Maloin and his daughter chat in the bar, Brown's quiet disposition as he discovers Maloin's vantage point.  These are all tightly crafted and alternately suspenseful, and at times amusing, pieces.

I suppose it's a bit of a let down after watching Satantango and Wreckmeister Harmonies again, two films I consider to be masterpieces, but he doesn't even get to reach the success of Family Nest or The Prefab People.  Despite the length of his films I never felt as though they were drifting without purpose.  The Man From London lacks this drive, however small it may be, that makes it seem like this story is necessary to tell.  The downright nihilistic bleakness of Damnation may be difficult to stomach, but it's a lot better than stopping every few moments to ask "Why?" as Maloin wanders through another alleyway.

There were moments that made me feel envious of how easy he makes this look.

There were a number of problems that plagued The Man From London from the get-go that may have had an effect on the final product.  One of the film's main producers committed suicide shortly before production began, and sent the financing of the film into a free fall.  Then there were some massive issues with the dubbing which, based on the version I saw, have not been cleared up quite yet.  There are multiple languages spoken in the film but the dubbing never quite matches any of the lip movements of the characters.  This just furthers my belief that dubbing is wholly useless in preserving any of the integrity of film, and it did a lot to take me out of the carefully structured world Tarr had prepared.  Finally, Tarr worked with a co-director (Agnes Hranitzky), which may have thrown off some of his normally in tune cinematic sensibilities throughout the film.  Or, Agnes kept him on track.  Until more stories come out of the production, we may never know.

So I emerge from the film sadder, but still impressed by Tarr's control of tone and incredible eye for visuals.  I can only hope that The Turin Horse is not infected with as many problems as The Man With London, so for the moment no news is good news.

Next week I'll be delivering a round up of Bela  Tarr's short films, and giving a brief overview of what I've learned doing all this.

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The Man From London (2007)

Directed by Bela Tarr.
Written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr.
Starring Miroslav Krobot, Janos Derzsi, Tilda Swinton, Erika Bok and Istvan Lenart.

Tarr with text

Posted by Andrew

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