At the Melbourne International Film Festival’s screening of Béla Tarr’s long anticipated The Turin Horse last night, a false start made everybody nervous. The first screening of the film, several days prior, was strewn with mistakes and mood-breakers, in a film where mood is possibly the most important element. About fifteen minutes behind schedule, The Turin Horse began, albiet a little out of line with the screen, not reaching its frame, with the border of the print projection visible. While at first this really irked me, so much so that I was tempted to leave as it was impeding my involvement in the film space, I began to appreciate it as a constant reminder that 35mm was being projected onto a screen. It is still worthy of something that needs appreciating. And this quote, which I have chosen as the title, while a bleak prophecy, could also describe the experience of MIFF-going. Think about it.
The films of Béla Tarr are all about affect (or at least I’ve deduced this from the three I’ve seen: this one, Man From London, and Damnation). The Turin Horse, almost free of dialogue, has nothing within its text to distract from it. We watch their faces, their environment, and nothing more. Some people might call this boring but really, the emotional pull from the screen is so intense that it’s impossible to think about anything else, let alone feel bored. The affective resonance is so powerful that even though I had considered leaving early to go to sleep, I could not tear myself out of the cineworld.
The father in The Turin Horse had an incredible face. So many contours, wrinkles, so much experience and hardship and melancholy all contained in a single face. And with so many slow camera movements, along with stillness, there was so much time to look at every single part of it. With a bung eye, he always seemed to be looking back at us as we looked at him. It was eerie, of course, but there was an element of sympathy too. As he first eats a potato, the wild, primeval energy he puts into it communicates all we need to know about him. When I first saw this six weeks ago, I wrote that this act of eating a potato communicated everything there was to him, as well. But now I must reconsider. There is the depth of a lifetime beyond his eyes, which we can only imagine, if we must. Yet Tarr does draw us close to the father through sound, using the effect of his eating as well as the diegetic soundscape of the gale, and the constant flickering of the fire, pulls us sensorially closer to him.
Later in the film, when the daughter heads outside to the well, the wind is absolutely filling the soundscape. A problem; the well is dry, she sticks her head in (via the camera), the sound of wind is quelled, and returns as the camera pulls out into the open. Regardless of the immense technical difficulty of a movement like this, which as part of a long take has followed the ‘action’ from inside the house to the well, this is an amazing thing to see on film.
When the father eats a potato, I could feel how hot it was, fresh from a pot of boiling water and burning his hands and mouth. This is how I react to hot food, and I know exactly how he feels. And how the woman feels, for that matter. I felt it too, at that moment.
As something of a narrative marker in The Turin Horse, a man comes to visit to buy some palinka. He gives a hearty monologue about the destuction of the town, the world and humanity. It seems at first over the top, out of hand, but really, it is the world that’s out of hand. The pattern of humanity: touch, acquire, debase. Or acquire, touch, debase. There is no God or gods, no good or bad, the world won’t get any better because the one big change that we get has already come. This is an onslaught, but it’s honest.
At one point, the daughter washes her father’s white shirt and hangs it up to dry. For more than a few moments it occupies the entire frame, and this frame is held for so long I began to make out a face in its creases. Whether this was intended or just in my mind, or whether others saw it too, I don’t know. But it meant something to me. This woman’s face, like her fathers, was so expressive, so full of experience. She was lonely, of course, as she was pretty much all alone. This is mirrored by the woman’s face framed by the window, the house and in turn the camera frame as she sits inside, trapped, both figuratively and literally. And while it seems as though she and her father are alone, there are other faces, other signifiers of familiarity and comfort. The face in the shirt, faces in the interior walls, faces in the door of the stable.
When things begin to behave out of order, as Nietzsche’s when understanding of the world is broken down, even the smaller things begin to change. On the fourth day, the man has two shots of palinka, then chugs from the bottle. The camera rests on the table, Palinka dripping down the side, not abiding by order. And the world follows. The visitor’s warning is legitimated, although also overcome. He claimed that there was to be a big change in the world, but it had already come. A mysteriously unaggressive gypsy, belonging to a group who terrorised the father and daughter, gave the woman a book. She recited a chapter whose ominous prose portented the end of the world: “Day will become night, and the night will be at the end.” On the fifth day, the gale prevents them from moving on to an imagined better place. They arrive home, and darkness falls. The lamps cannot be lit although full of fluid. Even the embers go out. The horse will not eat or drink. On the sixth day, the stove fire has gone out, and even the simplest act of boiling a potato cannot be achieved. This couple’s means to existence has expired.
While we know it is over, as the narrator tells us, the cinematographic illustration of this desperation is poignant and precise. The horse was left alone in darkness, helpless, all but deprived of agency. The father and daughter are left in the darkness, without fire, without access to the outside. The gale is over, and there is not even the crackling sound of the fire to fill the space. There is nothing left.
Regular Béla Tarr composer Mihály Víg has written a harrowing score both upsetting and magestic, which definitely brings the film a grandeur that may otherwise have been missing. Another gripe I had with the MIFF screening last night was that it was not particularly loud enough – whether this had to do with my position in the cinema, the somewhat lack of confidence in the projection room, or an altered memory of my first viewing, I’m not sure, but I can say that I definitely expected the soundtrack to more intensely fill my sphere of sonic reception. Nevertheless, and it is always an absolute pleasure to view Tarr’s chiaroscuro, immaculate slow camera, pulling and tracking, affective faces, sound and image. And with this grandesque symphony I was filled with joy and a deep sadness again, continually overwhelmed by its existence. Thank you, world.