A londoni férfi / The Man from London (2007)
Director: Béla Tarr
Screenplay: Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai; from Georges Simenon's novel
Cast: Miroslav Krobot, Tilda Swinton, Ági Szirtes, János Derzsi, Erika Bók, István Lénárt
Style over substance.
That is the plaint of many a critic when they come across a film or book or any work of art they do not like, but which has undeniable merit, at least technically, if not in a few other measures as well. But the fact is that my opening words have little to do with most of the gripes labeled as such. While there are artworks for which the opening plaint is valid, far more often the correct plaint is good style, poor execution.
Perhaps I have not encountered before a better example of this than the latest film by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, A Londoni Férfi / The Man from London (2007). Anyone familiar with any of Béla Tarr's later films, when he reputedly became 'Béla Tarr, filmmeister,' will recognize that, stylistically, The Man from London is brilliant. Where it fails, however, is in the way most films fail: it has a poor screenplay. Also, in the way that great filmmakers often do once they've reached a certain artistic level, Tarr resorts to ripping off his own greater, earlier works. (And this is a Tarr film, through and through, despite the claim that Ágnes Hranitzky, the film's editor, was a co-director.)
Before I assail the inconsequential screenplay, let me tackle the plunder from oneself that envelops the film. That's been done by filmmakers as diverse as Carl Theodor Dreyer (Gertrud), Martin Scorsese (Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed), and Ingmar Bergman (Saraband), but the king of this malady has to be Woody Allen.
Look at any of Allen's post-Golden Age (1977-1992) films, and it's clear that he steals from himself far more than he ever stole from Bergman or Federico Fellini. Sometimes it's a line, a scene, or a whole film. What is Deconstructing Harry but a déclassé Stardust Memories? And sometimes the films he makes are merely lesser rehashes, or films that are rehashes of parts of superior films. Both Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, while excellent films, are inferior to the majestic Crimes and Misdemeanors.
To be added to this list is Béla Tarr, for The Man from London is a good effort at best. Not unlike Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film, Three Monkeys, whose script is a bad soap opera, The Man from London doesn't reach a high level of accomplishment because Tarr has nothing of any depth to say on death or murder, the claimed subjects of the film. Worse yet, the filmmaker says nothing of heft likely because he has run out of visual ideas. Prior to The Man from London, I'd seen (in order) Damnation (1988), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); each of those only got better than the last. Given the excellent starting quality of Damnation, that's saying something.
Damnation has an animal vitality that The Man from London lacks. Satantango has a daring of form and subject matter that The Man from London lacks. Werckmeister Harmonies (the best of the four films) has an emotional gravitas and narrative hold that The Man from London lacks. Yet, each of these films has scenes or moments that are repeated in The Man from London; the problem is that in every instance the scene or moment in the more recent film is inferior to what can be found in Tarr's earlier efforts.
Sometimes that happens because The Man from London lacks the artistic daring and skill found in the earlier films, but just as often it's because it does not require such scenes. Tarr is trying to hammer a square peg into a too small round hole, thus showing that The Man from London is not borne of a Muse, but borne of roteness. Tarr is going through the motions, cobbling together a film out of habit, not vision. But more on that in a bit.
Let me give the single most egregious examples of self-plagiarism -- both visual and thematic elements -- that Tarr indulges in, from each of his three earlier films:
From Damnation, Tarr takes the bravura opening scene of a tramway of mining buckets that recesses into the apartment of a lonely man, pulling back around him, and transmogrifies it into The Man from London's similarly constructed, multiple scenes of its lead character, the night watchman Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), gazing over the French harbor/train depot (although reportedly shot in Portugal), while having the camera pull back and forth from outside the windows to inside the room.
The problem is that in the earlier film the opening shot occurs once at the film's opening, thus setting up the idea of the illusiveness of life -- later recapitulated in other scenes through other methods. In The Man from London, Tarr uses the technique of gesturing in and out of Maloin's office several times, and not at the film's start. This vitiates the impact of the technique and its declaration as a de facto idée fixe for the film. Compounding matters, the repetition undercuts the power of the technique, while what occurs outside of Maloin's window is not as compelling to watch or as masterfully orchestrated as the opening in Damnation.