Friday, August 28, 2009


The title of Bela Tarr's opus translates - logically enough - as 'Satan's Tango'. But if that conjures visions of demonic doings at a dance academy, put all thoughts of 'Suspiria'-stylee film-making from your mind. Whereas Dario Argento, at his best, is flamboyant and demented, a grand guignol poet, Tarr's visual poetry is wrought from different material and fashioned in resolutely downbeat cadences.

'Satantango' is a seven-hour Hungarian film shot in austere black-and-white and made up of long takes. Very long takes. Tarr holds the average shot so long it makes Tarkovsky at his most soporific look like a director of MTV videos fired up on crack and a double espresso. Many of these long takes, moreover, contain little visual information beyond what the first few seconds of the shot communicate.

Sometimes Tarr's camera moves and he'll follow his characters through oppressive tracts of woodland, along muddy and rutted country lanes, or down streets lashed with rain and strewn with trash. Take the still below. Imagine the two men walking, the wind and rain battering them, the litter blowing around their feet. Imagine this lasting about five minutes.

Other times, Tarr has his actors arranged in tableaux, immobile and unspeaking as the camera slowly zooms in or out of the scene. During dialogue scenes, he'll often pan away or slowly zoom past the characters and focus on, say, the patterns of a grubby bit of net curtain. I've used the word "slowly" twice in as many sentences, and with reason. 'Satantango' is a slow movie. Sometimes it's slow in a hypnotic, almost mesmerising way. Sometimes it's slow in a watching-paint-dry kind of way. And sometimes it's downright patience-testing.

There's an eight-minute scene when some cows wander out of a barn, past some houses and congregate in a bit of wasteground. That's it. Cows wandering around. For eight minutes. While a moodily minimalist score drones on the soundtrack. But this is an exercise in brevity compared to a single-take set-piece wherein a group of villagers engage in a drunken dance to an endlessly recycled accordion tune for twenty minutes. Apparently, Tarr had them all get drunk for the take. Christ knows what they thought when they saw the rushes.

'Satantango' comprises twelve chapters (mirroring the six steps forward, six steps back of the tango), many of which contain overlapping scenes or events played out from different perspectives. The villagers' interrelationships and often gruellingly difficult lives are painstakingly established, from the doctor who spies on his patients and keeps the company of whores while he drinks himself insensate, to the mentally disturbed child whose deprivation of parental guidance and affection leads to a hard-to-watch scene where she mistreats and later kills a pet cat ... and a just-as-uncomfortable corollary, the implications of which the mephistophelean Irimias (Mihaly Vig) plays on when he persuades the villagers to join him in a collective.

Politically, 'Satantango' (adapted from a novel by Laszlo Krasnahorkai) is a metaphor for the failure of communism, the aftermath of lives betrayed by its ideology. Artistically, its a challenge to the viewer; a weeding out of the cineastes from the film fans. It's the 'Remembrance of Things Past' of cinema, a subtitled and determinedly serious Mount Everest for moviegoers. An hour and a half in, when many a rom-com or shoot-'em-up actioner would be winding things up and spooling the end credits, and you're barely at base camp.

I've sat through some long and challenging films before - from Tarkovsky's exercises in "sculpting in time" to the full four-hour cut of 'La Belle Noiseuse' (most of which consists of an artist painting his model) - and I can honestly say 'Satantango' is one of a kind. It's as profound as it is pretentious, as immediate as it is oblique. It's fascinating and tedious, artistically valid and up its own arse, utterly gripping and frustratingly oblique.

It would make writing this flimsy and indecisive piece a lot easier if I could honestly say that I didn't like 'Satantango' and leave it at that. It would only be half a lie: there were instances where I actively disliked the film. But I was equally impressed by it. And there's no denying that Tarr has a visual and directorial style all of his own. I'll certainly make the effort to seek out his other works, but I'll approach them knowing I'm in for the long haul.

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