Directed by Bela Tarr. France/Germany/Hungary. 2008.

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There are three opinions about the films of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr; you either love them, or cannot stand them, or (in the case of 99.9% of the population) have never seen them. Personally I am in the first category, and his latest release, The Man From London, is one of his more accessible offerings (“slightly less inaccessible” is perhaps a better description).

Tarr’s films are characterised by their extreme slowness and length of shot, yet it is a slowness which, thanks to brilliant black-and-white cinematography and mesmeric sound, is really quite hypnotic. I do not watch them for their plots, nor for their generally nihilistic and apocalyptic themes, but for their purely aesthetic quality. They invariably begin with a shot lasting around 10 minutes, the most celebrated example being Satantango, which begins with a herd of cows emerging from a barn into a field. This may sound utterly pretentious, but somehow you cannot take your eyes off it. The opening shot of The Man From London is of the bow of a ship slowly emerging from a mist, with the camera swinging round to show the unloading of cargo onto a waiting train, then slowly retreating to reveal that the whole scene is being observed by a signalman installed in his globe-like box. The film is actually based on a thriller by Georges Simenon, involving robbery and murder, and if you are primarily interested in plot you should await the DVD release and watch it at 4 times the speed; it then becomes a half-hour short, though you may have problems with the dialogue (sparse though this is).

The newspaper reviews have been generally lukewarm, and the same comments have recurred in them over and over again. A common observation is that the film is below Tarr’s best work; this is true, probably because the subject-matter does not suit him, nor does the location (Dieppe instead of a Hungarian village). Another comment is that the dubbing is dreadful; the languages are French and English, while most of the actors are Hungarian; personally I did not find this a problem at all, no more than in any Fellini film, for example. Most reviewers were also bemused by a scene where a character in a bar balances a snooker ball on his nose, yet there is a much longer and similar scene in Satantango, involving a cheese roll. (I recognised at least 4 actors who appeared in Satantango, a film I reviewed earlier in Talking Pictures.) Amazingly, the reviewer in The Independent failed to understand the plot, yet it is actually pretty straightforward. On a positive note, all praised what passes for the film’s musical score, or sound effects; it is not always clear which description is more appropriate. One puzzle, however, is what sounds like the off-screen bouncing of a table-tennis ball, lasting several minutes, for which there is no hint of an explanation.

For the first time in a Tarr film, there are two participants familiar to British audiences. The signalman’s wife is played by Tilda Swinton, who these days is receiving media coverage appropriate to her professional longevity and stature. The English police inspector, played by a Hungarian actor who looks about 25 years older than the age at which any normal policeman would retire, is voiced by Edward Fox.

There was a certain type of French film popular in the late 1930s known as “poetic realism”, usually involving a working-class man, typically played by Jean Gabin, who gets involved in a criminal situation which he cannot handle (two excellent examples are Renoir’s La Bete Humaine and Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve). Except for Tarr’s distinctive style, The Man From London is precisely a film of this type. Unless you are addicted to rapid-fire editing, you could do worse than give it a try.

Alan Pavelin
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