Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2012)

The contemporary prevalence of apocalyptic films reaches its apex with The Turin Horse. It contains the various dualities that have marked this recent spate of subject matter: ascetic and deeply aesthetic, primally raw and analogously mannered, ending the world with a bang (or at least a howl) and a whimper. If it is to be Béla Tarr's final film, it is a disturbingly appropriate one for an artist whose stately, enigmatic corpus comprises some of the most quietly yet profoundly horrific films in all of cinema. It is a film so bleak that musical collaborator Mihaly Vig's ominous cues almost offer relief despite their sinister tones, for at least they suggest that music of some sort still exists within this whiting-out world.

The title refers to the infamous, apocryphal story of Friedrich Nietzsche going mad at the sight of a horse being flogged, a tale related to the audience by a narrator. The speaker goes into some more detail of Nietzsche, though the specificity slips on other things, say, the name of the abusive cabman, now lost to time as only his occupation was needed to make the legend. "Of the horse," the narrator admits at the end of his introduction, "we know nothing." Tarr then opens on a horse, though it is not meant to be the one from Turin. Nor even is it a stand-in for the suffering beast; instead, one could argue that the film that follows could possibly be what Nietzsche saw in his collapsed mind after his final rush of incomprehensible letters and his final words, spoken 10 years before his actual death. But the closest Tarr's film (which credits editor Ágnes Hranitzky as co-director in keeping with his last few works) comes to Nietzsche is in its depiction of a world beyond, well, everything, not just good and evil.

With his characteristic long takes, Tarr follows that horse and its masters, an old man named Ohlsdorfer (János Derzi) and his unnamed daughter (Erika Bók), over the course of six days defined by an aggressively mundane routine set against increasingly strong winds that add a surreal flavor to the tedium. One's thoughts turn to Jeanne Dielman, especially when the centerpiece of each day's schedule is the boiling and eating of potatoes, the father and child's only sustenance. But Tarr and Akerman use their intense focus on the things omitted from most films in vastly different ways. Jeanne Dielman offers a fascinating deconstruction of domestic life along social and gendered lines, revealing the myriad ways society imposes itself even in the sealed-off space of the woman's home and informs her relationships with others and her sense of self. The Turin Horse, on the other hand, shows a parent-child bond as the last bastion of humanity as society outside their isolated hovel is wiped off the face of the Earth by the endless gales.

But as my friend Andreas noted in a brief conversation we had on Twitter about the vague Akerman connection, Tarr does not position father and daughter as our last beacon of hope. Far from it, their time together serves only to delay the inevitable, and the hardships they face simply to live their banal lives suggest that they would be better off merely surrendering to the storm. Tarr films them in unbroken takes, each shot ever moving outward as it gently curves with what could pass for action. What he documents are two people locked into almost animalistic instinct, not too discernible from the horse who shares their routine of drinking ice water, feeding on bare nutrition and carrying out heavy burdens. The first day's shot of the pair's meal starts close on the daughter's preparation of the food and her setting of the plate in front of her father, whose fingers reach into frame and clumsily, gingerly claw at the skin of the steaming tuber. The camera moves back to show the man's face and upper body as he feeds with instinctual remove, rapidly cramming his mashed potato into his mouth while his face remains unsettlingly impassive. His feeding is all the more bestial thanks to his paralyzed right arm, which comes off as a transference of abuse from Nietzsche's unseen horse to a parallel dimension where the driver suffers the wounds.

And if the driver in this realm exhibits some of the horse's traits, so too does the horse seen on the screen exercise a willpower more suited to a human than a beast of burden. After seeing it drag the cart along in the first shot, the horse decides it has had enough of that and refuses to budge when the humans harness it and the father attempts to set off for town. After that, they cannot even get the harness on; by the third day, it ceases to eat, and by the fourth, it will not drink. The humans continue on with their tasks, but the horse knows better. This makes for dark humor, with father and daughter eventually reduced to tugging their cart around themselves as the horse follows freely, subtly driving them on as they attempt to flee their increasingly inhospitable home, only to turn back after the shot holds on their trek for an excruciating length of time. The shot becomes the funniest joke of the movie, even over the visitors who occasionally intrude upon the isolated family with wild warnings and anarchic behavior. Tarr's style, so unsettling in its spatial distance and temporal length, becomes a single-shot shaggy dog anticlimax in which the most major variation in the action amounts to nothing.

Through it all, the wind blows, getting worse each day until the last, in which its absence may be the only thing scarier than its constant roar. Mirroring the story of the Creation, The Turin Horse uses its six days to slowly undo what God wrought, and by the sixth day, with food and water exhausted and only a small amount of brandy to ease the end, even the sun has left, plunging the home into a void. It is Tarr's last, sick joke, making the previous mise-en-scène seem relatively dense in retrospect compared to the table existing in infinite blackness. Might as well go out with a laugh, I suppose, even if the chuckle, like the characters on-screen, freeze into silent stasis.

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