Friday 15 June 2012
THE TURIN HORSE
(Bela Tarr, 2011) What Tarr has proclaimed will be his final film is, at around two and a half hours, short by his standards. But in other ways it is exactly what one would expect from the Hungarian Master: a grim, darkly beautiful portrait of an enigmatic apocalypse slowly claiming the world. It is, first and foremost, a gruelling visceral experience. The lovely black and White cinematography by Fred Kelemen vividly captures the film's single location, an isolated rural farmhouse, home to an ageing father and his daughter. They are given some context by the opening narration which recalls the story of Friedrich Nietzsche and the "Turin Horse" - the German philosopher witnessed a man beating a horse in an Italian street, rushed to the animal and threw his arms around it, then collapsed. Two days later he uttered his final words, then lived for another decade in the care of his sisters; "gently demented". The first image we see after this story is of the old man on a wagon drawn by this horse, foregrounding the association for us. The apocalypse suggested by the film - the decay and collapse of the earth itself - has a universal scope which does recall Nietzsche in some regards, but aside from a lengthy rant against man and how he has destroyed everything by a visiting neighbour, Tarr never makes anything as clear as that. Instead he focuses upon the physical details of his characters lives. They struggle daily against their environment, a horrific wind storm relentlessly buffeting their house, and their routine never varies. The girl dresses her father, for he has a crippled arm. They drink brandy every morning. She draws water from the well. She boils potatoes and they eat one each, with their hands. They muck out the stable. He chops wood. They take turns looking through the window. They never converse except briefly about practicalities. They sleep. But daily their life worsens. The woodworm the father is used to hearing have gone, the first suggestion of a change in the physical, natural world. The horse refuses to move, or to eat. Then the well runs dry. When they try to flee, they are prevented from doing so for an unknown reason. Then the lamps won't light, and the darkness itself will not lift. Tarr captures all of this in 30 or so long takes, his camera moving slowly and elegantly, following this man and girl around in the howling wind, finding their faces lit in the gloom. They are largely stoical about the situation until a couple of haunting, hopeless shots of the girl's face late on. Like all of Tarr's work, this film has its own unique rhythm, which becomes hypnotic once you have surrendered to it. Mihály Vig's music soundtracks the cameras long slow zooms and pans around the farmhouse, until the physical reality of the lives it depicts becomes almost overwhelming in its intensity. This seems to be about death, the world shutting down stage by stage, day by day, but the suggestions of end of days and references to Nietzsche seem to widen it's scope somewhat(at one point some Gypsies appear and give the girl a book, talking of taking herto America with them, and the book also recalls Nietzsche's writing) even while it's determined focus upon the quotidian suggest it may actually be about the suffering inherent in the toil of a rural, earthy life. Whatever it's meaning and themes - and ambiguity is a big part of Tarr's peculiar appeal - it is an oddly thrilling piece of cinema. Lovely and gripping in an eccentric way, it left me exhausted and troubled.