Miklós Jancsó’s richly inventive 1974 adaptation of the Greek myth sends an oblique political message.
Electra, My Love mesmerises from the very beginning: the beat of the music, the dance of the actors, and the sweep of the camera in extended takes all combine to draw you into the film’s rhythm. So too do the portentous words of Electra, sole voice of justice in the village, where a tyrant king has taken over after the death of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is convinced that her brother, Orestes, will return from exile and help her to liberate the people.
It’s hard not to see the film, made in 1974, as a comment on Hungary’s situation at the time, and a message of encouragement to the director’s fellow citizens. While Hungarians were living under a restrictive Communist regime, Electra, My Love used native folk music and dances as a backdrop to speeches about the need to speak the truth at all costs, and engage in a continuous struggle against oppression: to be reborn every day, like the phoenix.
As the film was made with public funding and under Communist scrutiny, any message of resistance had to be oblique. In his excellent liner notes to this new DVD release by Second Run, Peter Hames explains that Miklós Jancsó’s films are considered ‘difficult’ precisely because the audience is left uncertain as to whether they’ve understood them. The director believed that such ambiguity was important, as it made the viewer engage actively with his films, trying to figure them out, whereas traditional storylines encouraged passivity and escapism.
Just because a film is difficult to understand, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to watch. Electra, My Love treats the viewer to a rich and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle, not wasting a second of its 71-minute runtime. It includes a peacock, dogs, traditional costumes, whip and swordplay, nude dancers, impossibly large adobe huts, a giant ball and even a helicopter, all filmed in rich colour photography.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this entire highly choreographed film contains just 12 shots. In a 28-minute interview included as extra material on the DVD, Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende shares insights about the process of filming such long takes. He talks about Jancsó’s preference for improvisation, how camera technology allowed him to progress from 5-minute to 12-minute shots, and the challenges faced by actors in Electra, My Love, who needed to deliver poetic lines while Jancsó yelled stage directions through a megaphone.
Kende also shares fascinating anecdotes about the production process: how Jancsó was inspired to introduce the giant ‘football’, which features neither in the original myth of Electra, nor the play by László Gyurkó on which Electra, My Love was based. He also confides that they neglected to install a lightning conductor on the prairie where they filmed, and lightning did indeed strike, destroying part of the set, luckily while no one was there and after 90 of the filming was complete.