The Man From London
Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) rang in the new millennium with a monumental and hallucinatory metaphor of society coming apart at the seams. It seemed perfectly appropriate for the times. This came after his 7 and a half hour opus, Satantango, a work of audience abusing genius. Cornering the theme of contemporary cultural malaise, Tarr had made his case as the most arty and conceptually brilliant of Eastern European auterists. True to Tarr’s signature form, The Man From London opens with a beautiful 12-minute shot that defines the mood and the plot devices that set the show in (slow) motion. Classic images from a ghostly film noir – an old passenger steamer, a mysterious exchange between a pair of trenchcoated men, an argument, a murder, a train leaving the scene behind – all witnessed by a lone railyard worker. Maloin (Miroslave Krobot), with a wonderful world-weary face, is the witness who salvages a suitcase full of money left from the altercation, setting the wheels in motion in this abstract Hitchcockian thriller. Beautifully shot in black and white, and with a haunting score by longtime collaborator Mihaily Vig, Tarr sets and incessant mood that runs from a kitchen sink miserablism to a chilling expressionism – chiaroscuro drenched fog, cobblestone streets, quays and streetlights – The Man From London develops less a mystery, but as a sprawling canvas for some other obsessions. Adapted from a rather slim narrative by French mystery writer, Georges Simenon, Tarr dutifully gets from point A to point Z, but his passions lie less in the mysteries of moment, but more in the mystery of life itself. The film, even as it revels in images of film noir, is essentially drained of thrills or suspense. But a heightened mood of tension shrouds the surroundings in a series of set pieces that reveal individual lives on edge and ultimately unraveling when the deus ex machina of cold hard cash comes to play. Tilda Swinton gives some odd star power to the whole affair in a bit role as Maloin’s broken and hectoring wife. She has a tiny role, but in a single long take she shines among the panoply of Tarr’s weathered and world-beaten faces that populate his filmic world, plumbing the haunting depths of a soul in compete turmoil. And as it is with the rest of the Hungarian character actors that surround the action, from István Lénárt as Morrison,the taciturn inspector, to Maloin’s steadfast daughter Henrietta (Erika Bók) and the chorus of drunks that inhabit the rundown bar where much of the story takes place, it’s less about the story, more about the faces and places that populate Tarr’s downbeat, but very human vision of the world.
Originally published in EL Magazine, November 2009