The Man from London: Notes after the Event

By Dai Vaughan

man-from-london-bela-tarr.jpgThe Man From London, 2008

This film (by Béla Tarr) lies heavy in the memory as an ill-digested meal will lie heavy on the stomach. It demands our continued concern, nagging at us with the suspicion that some important truth has been articulated: hardly what you might expect from a work which seems at first glance to elevate a morbidly baroque stylistic extravagance over any sort of human curiosity.

Everyone will by now have heard about the seemingly interminable opening shot, paced to match the boredom of the night duty it represents, which introduces us to the central character, Maloin, and shows from his viewpoint the entire process of a crime gone wrong. But the striking thing about this episode, which must have been fiendishly difficult to shoot, is that, though far from self-effacing, there is nothing showy or self-congratulatory about it. The camera movements call to mind those of industrial lifting gear; we almost hear them groan.

And this sepulchral tread persists throughout. When Maloin reacts to something he sees, we are not given a cut to whatever it may be, but have to watch while the camera completes a laborious process of re-framing; and furthermore we soon learn that we shall have to be patient and wait for this to happen. A shot of Maloin will often begin with a lengthy hold on the back of his head. Scenes, in many cases composed of only one shot, will end with a palpable sense of relief at having managed to say what they set out to say - or else with the equivalent of a shrug at having failed to do so. What comes across is the difficulty of representing anything. And this serves arguably as a metaphor for the difficulty of the object, once represented, in representing anything beyond itself: which is to say, serving as the component of a narrative.

man-from-london-bela-tarr-2.jpgThe Man From London, 2008

A quarrel between Maloin and his wife about his teenage daughter’s reluctance to eat her soup is followed by a sustained shot of the daughter eating her soup. It tells us almost nothing; but then what else could the film have shown? Likewise there are two very long holds on the faces of women: the former Maloin’s wife after another quarrel, the latter the wife of the criminal after she has been told that he is dead. But these can scarcely be read psychologically, as offering insight into the women’s feelings. Their very duration drains them of that. They are rather meditations upon the impossibility of knowing, telling us precisely that they can tell us nothing but that, as in real life, such evidence is frequently all we have to make do with. Indeed, it is easy to form the impression that these images exist only for their own sakes and are not contributing to a story at all except perhaps in some secondary sense.

A fresh complexity occurs with the introduction of Morrison, an English detective. This character, at least in the UK version, is played by two actors: his appearance by Istvan Lenart and his (English-speaking) voice by Edward Fox. (I was unable to judge whether he was post-synched also when speaking French, the main language of the film.) Though the dubbing is well nigh perfect, we are left, as always, with a slight sense of disjunction between what a person is saying and his saying of it; and this is emphasised by the way his first speech begins off-camera as if it were a sudden recourse to voice-over narration in explanation of earlier events - the sound level, moreover, not changing as we circle in on the speaker. This serves to underline the film’s strategy of conveying its information in discrete packages. A problem with this is that what doesn’t fit into the packages tends to be omitted; and there are times when it is quite difficult to be sure what is going on - though in retrospect we can usually work it out.

The Man from London
, though slow, is not monotonous. It delivers new stylistic twists as a conventional thriller will deliver new plot twists: for example, the grimly hilarious scene where two salesmen try to browbeat the young woman into choosing a fur. But where the film’s method is put under most strain is the episode of the hut; and if there is to be any point at which we lose faith in its address, this will surely be it. We do not even know there is a hut until the daughter tells her father that a man is hiding there. Is Maloin already aware of this? Has he already been taking food to the man? We struggle to decide. And, when he does enter the hut, we remain on the outside looking at the closed door until he reappears. Not only do we not see what is happening - which may seem a little perverse, since our gaze at the door substitutes for no-one’s viewpoint - we do not hear anything either; and only later do we learn that a killing has been taking place. To find this unsatisfactory may, I realise, be said to betray a crassly conventional stance; but in truth there has been little to undercut the naturalistic assumption that visual will be accompanied by aural data.

That aside, however, the film retains its enormous compulsion. Searching for the reason why such a Modernist text can seem more true to life than familiar varieties of realism, I return to the eating of the dismal soup. The overriding quality of such scenes is a bareness resembling that of memories pared down by successive acts of retrieval. The elements of this film have the look of memories even as they are being represented as occurring in the present; and it mimics perfectly the way our minds, in recounting our own experience to ourselves, raise extravagant edifices upon the flimsiest foundations of remembered fact.

Dai Vaughan is a novelist, critic and poet.