Gyí¶rgy Pí¡lfi came to the attention of British movie-goers a few years ago with the charming-with-barbs Hukkle (2002). In this famously dialogue-free film, what appears at first glance to be a casual saunter round a Hungarian village turns by stealth into a murder mystery. You do probably have to watch a couple of times to get every detail, but it is all there if you follow the clues carefully. There are other little dramas going on, however, in the rhythm of filming, and the idea of a world implied in it. The Hukkle aesthetic appears to be that of a nature documentary or meditation on the gentle rhythms of timeless peasant life. Along the way, the camera lingers in loving close-up over various insects, follows fish underwater, and a mole underground. When it shifts its attention from animal to human, there is no obvious change of rhythm or focus. The same gaze applies to the weather-beaten face of a cheery old fellow with hiccups (‘hukkle’), screwing up his eyes into the light as he sits outside his ramshackle cottage, or a shepherd girl resting under a tree. The stress seems to be on organic connection and continuity. The camera tracks the effects on the surrounding fabric of things made by the tiny vibration of each hiccup, and a ladybird provides an inconsequential segue from the shepherd girl to a lonely water-carrier.
But this makes Hukkle sound too much like Mikrocosmos (1997) or, god help me, March of the Penguins (La Marche de l’empereur, 2005). The smooth surface of Hukkle is punctuated by lots of tiny hiccups, little blips in rhythm and expectation. The hiccupping old fellow and his ramshackle house could be from any time in the last 500 years until a couple of cars go by, then have to go into reverse to let a truck past. The shepherd girl is similarly ‘timeless’ and quaint until you notice the earphones, and the camera shifts to close-up on her mini-disc player as she turns up the volume. Rather more blatantly, a jet fighter plane thunders along a river and under a bridge, briefly suspended in stop motion over the broiling water sucked into its jet stream. Here, the pastoral is broken not just by the intrusion of a high-tech artefact, but by the pointed introduction of cinematic artifice. Likewise, a mysterious birds-eye view at another point suddenly zooms to become a frame on a film roll, one of many hanging down to form, bizarrely, the bead-curtained entrance to a shop. Some of these moments risk being a little too tricksy for their own good, as does, say, the video rewind sequence of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). But they do work as parts of a serious attempt to intertwine folk idioms with the Modern, in such a way that one is not simply enslaved by the other. One could say this is a very Hungarian tradition from the folkloric researches of BartíÂ³k and Kodí¡ly onwards.
One goal of Hukkle seems to be to do justice to a world where very different time-scales co-exist, and folk song has a small but important role. Towards the end, the dogged local policeman (cf. Frances McDormand in Fargo, 1996), whose mullet and ‘tache defy any periodisation, seems to have solved the mystery, but shows no sign of doing anything about it (yet). He sits at the edge of a wedding celebration where the bride is already up to something, listening to a female choir singing a traditional number. Then the choir parts and a peasant girl steps forward to sing a Sí¡rkí¶zi (I’m not making this up) song whose middle verse, ‘Ki az urí¡t nem szereti’, advises a young wife who does not love her husband to cook carrots with paprika. This isn’t exactly the key to the whole film, but it brings a great number of little details into focus.
This brings us to Taxidermia, which is also an ambitious film, with an interest in consumption, and in the odd dislocations of Hungarian history. Taken together, the two films certainly suggest a young director who is onto something, but for me Taxidermia has something of the difficult second album about it. In places it seems to be straining a little too hard for effect, yet in others it is strangely thin. In fact, this amounts to a structural problem with the film as a whole. There is an intriguing opening section featuring the hapless hare-lipped private soldier Morosgoví¡nyi, victimised in Wozzeck-style by the commanding officer of an obscure outpost, presumably at the end of WWII. This section is mainly interested in the baroque ways in which Morosgoví¡nyi deals with his sexual frustrations. I have to say it had never occurred to me I might ever see a man with flames leaping out of his erect penis, and this in itself is surely already reason enough to see Taxidermia. Another, by comparison more normal, orgy involves a pig’s carcass fantasised into the commanding officer’s wife. From this ambiguous union is born, or so it seems, a pig-tailed baby who will grow into Kí¡lmí¡n, the gluttonous protagonist of the film’s second section. Kí¡lmí¡n is a Hungarian speed-eating champion, and vies with his number two for the affections of the ladies’ champion. This section is, for me, the weak link: the satire is at once vague and heavy-handed, with too many ‘look, they’re really fat’ jokes, and it just goes on too long.
In the final section, the inexplicably scrawny offspring of the champion guzzlers is a taxidermist in contemporary, post-communist Hungary. He is a slave to his father, who has the girth of Jabba the Hut, the disposition of PíÂ¨re Ubu, and is completely immobile. The final cuttings and stuffings, and the runt Lajoska’s ingenious machine, are well done as far as they go. But why does a film that invokes taxidermy in its title do so little to explore the idea after such an orgy of attention to the sub-M. Creosote antics of the Communist-era fatties? The juxtapositions of fat and thin, the different modes of ‘stuffing’, set against the division into starkly different historical epochs, seem to want to say something about difficulties in managing consumption, but only end up labouring the point in places to no great effect.
Overall, structurally, this is a Big Mac of a film: a bloated glutinous middle dwarves the two ends of an undercooked bun. I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much away. The film is certainly well worth seeing for the good bits. Pí¡lfi has lots of flair, but I hope he works out what is really important to him next time. Taxidermia has been lavishly praised elsewhere, but art-house directors with an eye to cinematic trickery are especially ill-served by an over-grateful, uncritical response that potentially allows them to slip into mannerism.