Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The devil's nipples: watching Sátántangó

An afternoon and evening spent watching Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s seven-hour eastern bloc-buster Sátántangó (1994):

For the first 15 minutes you don’t see another person, only cows. Writer Umberto Eco made the first 100 pages of his novel The Name of the Rose deliberately hard-going to ensure only the determined continued. This must be something like that but 15 minutes? I need to show more backbone. A doctor spies on his colleagues, a motley bunch of alcoholics and prostitutes - some both - desultory inhabitants of a collective farm abandoned after the collapse of Communism. It is beautifully shot and the cut-up chronology of the episodes creates a rhythm of its own. It’s getting dark outside; my notes are getting notably shorter for each chapter.

At the end of the first disc (of three) there’s an unexpected, but welcome, intertitle: Interval. Lovely. I don’t have any ice cream but a beer will do. I take two back to the sofa, to be on the safe side, but begin to regret this a couple of hours later. The doctor takes a piss and I decide to go and do the same. The end of disc two, chapter six - called ‘The Spider’s Function II - The Devil’s Nipples, Sátántangó’ - is where the trouble really starts. The mad villagers are having a miserable party and I think I’m going stir crazy; one character has a loaf of bread stuck to his forehead, another’s breasts are wobbling all over the place, but it’s the damned accordion music that gets to me.

One of the temptations when watching a very long film on DVD is always going to be pressing the fast forward button. Despite Tarr's glacial black-and-white shots I was only tempted twice: when a disturbed child plays with (read: 'terrorises') a cat, and when that bloody music goes on, and on, and on.

I need another drink: the characters keep ordering ‘rum and liqueur’ in the film and I decide I need something stronger but only have red wine. I go to fetch it, leaving the devilish accordionist to his satanic ways. I think I’m nearly there but realise I’ve duped myself: disc three contains half the film. What a fool I’ve been. I should at least have stocked up on some Hungarian snacks, like, erm, what? And this is where my mind wanders as one of the villagers - Irimiás, who the others thought was dead - lectures them on their iniquitous ways and proposes a way out of their hell. It may be the drink, but the film’s religious overtones are very striking, poised somewhere between apocalypse and revelation. Chapter nine, ‘Go to heaven? Have nightmares?’, foretells the weird dreams I have that night. The final title reads: ‘No way out.’

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