The Man from London

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Yannick Casanova/Artificial Eye Film Company
Béla Tarr/Hungary-France-Germany-United Kingdom 2008

Béla Tarr’s name arose frequently during the film world’s recent mourning for Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, principally because he’s perceived to be one of the few film makers currently in his prime of a similar stature.

Like the great European masters of old, Tarr too has been allowed an extended apprenticeship during which to evolve, but his eighth film falls short of consolidating a position at the very highest table of cinematic achievement; a disappointment considering the strength and relative success of his previous film, The Werckmeister Harmonies.

Being an adaptation of a pulp novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon, and with an internationally renowned actor like Tilda Swinton in the cast, the financiers involved must have harbored hopes of the film being a breakthrough work – a fusion of Tarr’s stately, glacial brilliance with a more dramatically propulsive storyline. In fact, despite the ostensible dynamics of the plot, The Man from London is one of Tarr’s coldest and most static works.

The film opens with a dazzling display of directorial bravura that only Tarr could pull off; a 20-minute sequence of pure cinema so audacious it would probably make Brian De Palma blush. A seemingly unbroken POV shot pans back and forth across some docks as two men exchange a parcel, passengers disembark from a boat, the parcel is thrown ashore and a fight breaks out between two waiting men, leading one of them to fall in the water with the package.

Our watching protagonist, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), descends from his vantage point and retrieves the contested parcel and thus begins a story about the corrupting power of unearned goods. Tarr gives this archetypal, noirish narrative little embellishment; it’s as straightforward a plot as they come, perhaps befitting a directorial style that only allows a few minutes worth of dialogue stretched out over lengthy durations.

Maloin is a typical Tarr character, a disenfranchised proletarian in a faded industrial town, but his unexpected windfall grants him a measure of power and assertiveness. He overturns months of silence to begin bossing his wife around. He orders his daughter to leave her not-particularly demeaning job in a delicatessen. But it soon transpires the loot was stolen from a British theater owner and a stony-faced detective from London (István Lénárt) arrives to try and retrieve it.

Described rather humorously in the subtitles as “a famous inspector from London”, the detective uses peculiar policing methods that involve striking outlandish and implausible deals with his suspects. At this point the film loses way somewhat, abandoning Maloin and his moral struggle for extended interrogation scenes that seem trivial.

By the conclusion it’s apparent the film disappoints because the story is too obvious and banal. The prospect of Tarr working within a noir framework was a tantalizing one; one imagines him crafting his elegiac magic around the genre’s well-defined scaffolding to form an exciting amalgamation. But the storyline has no surprises and lacks the disorientating moral mazes of the most rewarding noirs and crime films. Simenon’s story makes Detour look like The Big Sleep.

Also, the more esoteric elements of Werckmeister hinted at a fascinating progression in Tarr’s style – a kind of blending of Tarkovsky with Lynch – but in many ways this film feels like a backwards step, a facsimile of moments from his earlier films. The bar scenes in particular could have been lifted from a number of his earlier works.

Despite numerous production difficulties (including the death of producer Humbert Balsam), the film is, as expected, technically exemplary. The faultless sound design and obligatory chamber score from Mihaly Vig do not disappoint.

English-speaking audiences will be curious to see how Swinton fares, but unexpectedly she plays Maloin’s wife rather than a character from London, and she’s only in two scenes. Her performance is reasonably effective given she seemingly phonetically mouthed her Hungarian dialogue before being dubbed by another actress.

Regardless of the above reservations, The Man from London is still a competent and intriguing work from a major filmmaker. But with many still mourning the suddenly sparse canon of contemporary cinematic adventurism, a more reassuring consummation of Tarr’s talents may have been expected.

© 2007 James Rocarols. All rights reserved.

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