The Turin Horse (2011, Béla Tarr)
I like to imagine that I know a couple of things about world cinema, or else I wouldn’t attempt to write something like this blog, but always with the caveat that I remain a beginner, an amateur. It’s in this spirit that I confess to you that Béla Tarr is new to me — The Turin Horse, the film with which he has chosen to end his career, is my first experience with his cinema, a medium-onto-itself that many find ponderous, empty, dreadfully slow. It was described to me on several occasions as an endurance test, a two and a half-hour, black and white, thirty-shot (!) series of documents of a father and daughter working in increasingly dreadful conditions on a potato farm, with virtually nothing happening (until near the end of our arduous encounter with them). It was stated that Tarr’s film was, more than any of his others, divorced from all the pleasures we as an audience are expected to glean from cinema.
What can I say? I passionately disagree. I loved the film — was in fact initially bewildered by how much I loved it, and what’s more, it never once bored me or made me shift around in my seat. Keep in mind that over the last several years I’ve gained a far greater tolerance for slowly paced films that intend to engross and provoke more than entertain; I’m in fact curious about how I will respond to the endless wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter when I revisit it soon. Also keep in mind, maybe, that I was fighting off a cold and was on a preponderance of mild medication when I saw the film, but I doubt that had much impact. I didn’t have the benefit of a gargantuan screen or other atmospheric conductive to a real cinematic experience — I was on my laptop, in my bed — and yet I was entirely mesmerized by the film. It’s such a sensory experience, like 2001 or Somewhere, that it’s hard to fully explain why, but I think I have some idea.
A bit of background, first, is worthwhile — all of the publicity materials regarding The Turin Horse echo its prologue, read in stonefaced monotone by the director, about an obscure incident in which Frederich Nietzsche, shortly before his death, observed a horse being whipped, embraced the horse and begged the abuser to stop before being carried off. The film, Tarr claims, is speculation about what happened to the horse after this incident. All this has nothing to do with the actual story, except philosophically, and really just seems like a distraction of sorts. Rather, the film’s about routine and, secondarily, well, let’s just say it would make an interesting double with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. In other words, when something does happen, it’s a pretty big deal.
There’s no doubt that some will find The Turin Horse extremely difficult and tiresome to watch, and its audience is likely as limited as any critically acclaimed film of recent years. For me, though, it in retrospect isn’t such a surprise that I responded to it, for it contains so many of my cinematic fetishes: extremely long and elaborate takes, black and white cinematography, subtle and layered sound design, and a near-total absence of dialogue. The story is told entirely visually and through the faces and actions of its two lead characters, performed with quiet intensity by János Derzsi and Erika Bók. Then there’s the horse itself, whose increasingly erratic behavior is the first clue that Something Is Amiss, and indeed the horse gives a quite heartbreaking performance itself. None of the characters are particularly fleshed out, but that’s a function of the somewhat empty tedium of the day-to-day experiences we see acted out: the procedures of dressing and undressing, trying to get the horse to move, cooking dinner and eating it, going to bed. Only slight variances exist, but they pile up — it’s a drab and dreary existence that’s being carved out here, yet when its status quo is threatened, there is the vague but thinly disguised layer of panic that settles over everything. For what else do this man and his daughter know of the world?
Superficially, what’s most striking about The Turin Horse is, for all the sadness and desperation it visualizes, how beautiful it is. The scenes, which give the appearance of being spontaneous despite a probable elaborate setup and rehearsal process, fall repeatedly into a painterly grace — it feels like a truly alive, empathetic work of art, even as the artist shakes his godly hand over the premises and begins to Take Away. But there is no contempt for these people, only the recognition of their mortality and all that they stand to lose. Yet, just below the surface, and bear with me here — the film is hilarious. Yes, it’s hilarious in a gallows-humor sense like some elaborate Kafka or Beckett put-on, but when you really think about it, it may be one of the funniest movies ever made. I’m serious. So is the film — in fact, unbelievably self-serious and humorless, never once breaking its straight-faced and horrifically grim tone. Which is all the more reason, I guess, for me to constantly be reminded of Woody Allen’s Love and Death while watching it.
The Mel Brooks joke version of the film is like this: two potato farmers work rigorously day in and day out as their horse gets sicker and sicker and a storm outside rages more and more severely. Every night they each have a boiled potato for dinner and then go to sleep. One day their neighbor comes to borrow some liquor and announces that the world will end. Shortly thereafter, gypsies come and attempt to steal the farmers’ water, their most finite resource. Then one day, the sun goes out, literally; the world is now, indeed, going to end. The two of them sit and eat potatoes, only now the potatoes are cold.
Except that the Mel Brooks joke version of the film is exactly what the film is! I can only imagine what a field day some great comic artist could have with the premise, yet the movie we’re faced with is actually more hysterical and darkly amusing than any parody could be, because, again, it never breaks its tone. There’s no way not to find it funny when a man comes to borrow whiskey and starts spouting convoluted philosophy out of nowhere, no way to sense all the impending doom that causes the pair to decide to leave only to find, for never-explained reasons, that they cannot. Of course, it’s also very sad and upsetting and frightening, but come on. It’s great because it’s funny — it’s like all of those parodies of arthouse films, especially Ingmar Bergman’s, from the ’70s that were never really fair because there was so much more to those films. Not that there isn’t more to this one, but say this: The Turin Horse is precisely the movie that people who claim not to like “foreign films” believe every “foreign film” is like. Not sure what it says about me, therefore, that I thought it was magnificent, but there you have it.
One reason the heaviness doesn’t become too much to bear is that, while we never leave a strict and small geological area outside of the opening sequence, the camera is nearly always moving and reframing things and finding new ways to discover and portray its surroundings. In this regard, The Turin Horse recalls some of the more famous avant garde features of the ’70s — the mechanically-directed La Region Centrale springing to mind — that spent hours looking at the same landscape in different ways until it felt unrecognizable, constantly “new.” I’m sure there’s also precedent in Tarr’s own work, but again, this was my introduction to him, so I can’t yet comment, but one thing that absorbed me completely in the film was the flawlessness of its sense of place, the expanse and simplicity of all that the camera captured. To me, this is full-fledged cinema.
Of course, The Turin Horse isn’t nearly so unconventional as it seems — its very structure is remarkably neat and simple, and almost Biblical, as one routine day devolves into ever-mounting catastrophes over the six days that follow, each marked by some transformative or traumatic event, everything signaling and leading to what seems to be the apocalypse. As in Melancholia, I’m left with a curiously elated feeling after watching the world end, even though the conclusion of The Turin Horse is rather horrifically bleak in a manner that the scenic and cathartic finale of Melancholia was not. (The last line, “We have to eat,” attempting to convince itself of the absurd, is chilling.) I have a feeling that zest for life is intended by Tarr, but I’m not so sure about how he’d feel if I told him that, as he sets this lengthy film up as an endurance test, I loved every minute and was surprised it was over so quickly. I suppose he’d tell me, as you would, that this says more about me than about the film.