Saturday, 14 May 2011

Sátántangó

The opening shot of this 1994 Hungarian film - an unbroken black & white 8-minute take of cattle wandering through a farm, should act as a sufficient disclaimer for anyone who might be expecting some thrills and bellyaches for their buck. Sátántangó, Béla Tarr's magnum opus runs just a little over 7 hours and is said to contain something in the region of just 150 shots. The plot, which is slowly teased out over the course of the film's epic running time concerns a small community living on a rain-lashed isolated collectivised farm in rural Hungary. The drab lifestyle of the community is shattered with the death of a child, an event which heralds the arrival of a one-time member of the commune who has mysterious plans for his fellow neighbours...

There is little in modern Cinema to compare with Sátántangó but signposts along the way include Edgar Reitz's long-form work Heimat, and Michael Haneke's recent film The White Ribbon. Béla Tarr's direction is mesmerizing, the long takes full of beautiful, elegant camera moves, and even amid the muck and the misery, and the drink-sodden characters, the film has an incredible sensuality. That the film is so compelling right up to its strange and surreal conclusion is something of a miracle considering the length of the film and the many wordless stretches (including one entire reel where the cast drunkenly dance in real time like demented marionettes).


As with his previous film, Damnation and his 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr remains one of contemporary Cinema's great visualists. In collaboration with his cameraman Gábor Medvigy, the film contains an astonishing array of b/w imagery, including the now famous shot of the the men walking along the street as a gale whips up a torrent of rubbish around them. 1 The film has some stand-out sequences - an oafish man's epic journey to the local pub to replenish his supply of brandy, and a very powerful sequence where a scorned little girl poisons her cat and warmly embraces the concept of death. The film is beautifully constructed as well, with sequences repeated from different perspectives, seemingly disparate events briefly intersecting before dividing again, resulting in a rather wonderful chronological disorientation for the viewer.


Currently the best version of Sátántangó on home video is Artificial Eye's R2 set, the film spread across 3 discs. The 1.66 transfer is very pleasing, with a strong b/w image which doesn't suffer from the image float anomaly that appeared in AE's Stalker disc (where a white section of the image would appear to dislodge itself from the rest of the image). The print used for the transfer in in good shape, with some minor vertical lines present in some scenes and the appearance of reel cues. Audio is very decent too and the removable English subtitles are well done. Hopefully, this tremendous work will be given the Blu-Ray treatment some day but until then the AE package is highly recommended.

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Notes
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1. The shot of the men walking on the street full of swirling rubbish was hommaged in Gus Van Sant's 2002 film Gerry, with the rubbish replaced by desert tumbleweed.

7 comments:

  1. 7 hours - I salute your stamina, Wes. Tarr is an interesting director, although I find him a bit bleak. I'll never forget the opening shot of Damnation though, with the chair-lifts.

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  2. This seems like quite an undertaking Wes, did you do it in one sitting?

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  3. Yep, it was one sitting with 3 bathroom breaks (cos I'm not as young as I used to be). It kinda had to be one sitting, otherwise I might have been days before I gotta chance to pick it up again, had I split it up...

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  4. Thanks Jon, it's certainly a bleak film, but well worth the long voyage. My wife wandered into the room at one point and just shook her head when I proudly explained the film was a 7-hour stint.

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  5. 7 hours. Damn. I might be inclined to try one day - but a question - is the cat really poisoned on screen?

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  6. The cat definitely loses consciousness whether it's really killed or sedated, I don't know... Easier and better to fake it I think. I imagine in this enlightened day and age, crew members would object to the director killing an animal for a shot. Would you ?

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