Man from London, The (2007): Hungarian Bela Tarr’s First Film in Cannes Fest

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (In Competition)–Bela Tarr’s The Man from London is the first Hungarian film in competition at the Cannes Fest after almost two decades. Unfortunately, this black-and-white noir saga, based on a Georges Simenon old novel, is a major artistic disappointment, representing a step down for the art director, who has built a small cult following in Europe but is still hardly known in the U.S.

At once overlong and self-indulgent, Man from London curiously feels incomplete, as if the director spent a lot of time on the first reels and then rushed to finish his work so that it would get it done in time for theatrical display. This is Tarrs first work to be an official selection in Cannes, though previous films have played other major festivals. The estimable Toronto Film Fest chose Tarrs cinema as its spotlight, offering many American critics (including this writer) an occasion to examine his work.

Man from London has been a troubled production from the get-go. First, it took Tarr years to get the financing in order. Then, the project was halted on location in Corsica in March 2005, after the suicide of its French producer, Humbert Balsan, only nine days into the shoot, with a reported loss of $1.75 million.

Tarr then found a new producer, Paul Sadoun, who pulled the film back together, restructuring the picture as a three-way co-production, without the original partnership of the UK, and bringing it in for $7 million. Together with Corsican partners, the production built an elaborate set at the harbor of Bastia, including a lighting system that took a whole month to set up.

The stylized cinematography is indeed the most impressive element of a film that lacks an involving narrative or engaging characters. You sensed that something was wrong when you noticed Tilda Swinton, the great British actress, dubbed in Hungarian Why was she cast in this particular film that doesnt take an advantage of her distinctive voice; in totto, Swinton has two or three rather banal domestic scenes.

Tarr and his writer-collaborator, the novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have loosely adapted Belgian writer Simenons novel, paring it down to the barest skeleton. (Tarrs films were better and more coherent, when based in Krasznahorkais published novels).

Their saga begins impressively with a long nocturnal take (a staple of Tarrs cinema) of a ship at the harbor, leading us to Maloin (Miroslav Krobot, the Czech actor), a severe middle-aged man who works at the railroad.

Passengers descend from a boat and walk to the train station, when Maloin spots a small suitcase thrown from the boat to a man waiting at the harbor. A fight between two men over the case, which not surprisingly is full of UK bank notes, leads to a murder. Retrieving the cash, Maloin goes on to dry the money, bill by bill, on the stove of his signal box. This piece of action takes at least 40 minutes of the pictures two-hour plus running-time.

Tarr is not concerned with conventional plot, characterization, or psychological motivation, instead dwelling on establishing a dark, ominous texture that recalls vintage film noir of the 1940s, courtesy of his gifted cinematographer Fred Kelemen (the director of Fallen, among others).

After the long and impressive exterior scene, the story switches to the indoors and we get a family quarrel over dinner between Maloin, his wife (Tilda Swinton) and their daughter Henriette (Erika Bok), which feels like a distraction from the main saga, even though theres hardly any coherent plot to speak of.

Back outdoors, we spot another mysterious man (Janos Derszi), who turns out to be Brown, a Brit who has robbed his boss and is now being followed by police inspector Morrison (Istvan Lenart).

Confined to a few locals, the story includes the dockside, Maloins modest apartment, and also the local bar, though verbal communication in all of these places is minimal.

I was a fan of Tarrs previous works, such as Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), but I have to admit that my patience was running low at this experience, even though there are some breathtaking expressive and even lyrical static shots. As noted, Man from London is grave and intense, but not particularly involving, and its hard to evaluate the actors work because theyre given so little to door to say.

Like all of his films, Man from London is an auteurist creation par excellence, with Tarr in complete control of space, light, sound, and camera movement. By my estimate, at least one hour is silent, forcing us to pay attention to films unique properties.

Festivals often show art films that are not just intellectually challenging but also trying of viewers threshold of tolerance. Most of the films in Cannes this year ran over two hours, yet the frustrating thing about Man from London is that at the end, most of the earlier enigmas and mysteries prevail.

Knowing Tarrs work, I am sure that he wished to explore some existential concerns other than offer a dense, moody, and somber piece in which the well-lit extended takes occupy center stage.