Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: THE TURIN HORSE (2011)

(Hungary/France/Switzerland/Germany/US - 2011; 2012 US release)

Directed by Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky.  Written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr.  Cast: Erika Bok, Janos Derszi, Mihaly Kormos, Ricsi.  (Unrated, 155 mins)

Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr, best known for the seven-and-a-half hour epic SATANTANGO (1994), announced his retirement from filmmaking with THE TURIN HORSE, which runs a relatively brief 155 minutes.  THE TURIN HORSE is grim, oppressive, slow, and monotonous, but Tarr finds beauty in the bleakness, with rich, stark, black & white cinematography that reveals every detail in the harsh confines of the characters' lives. 

Using the 1889 mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche as its springboard (Nietzsche allegedly lost his mind after coming to the aid of a stubborn horse being whipped by its owner), THE TURIN HORSE follows the horse's aged owner (Janos Derszi) back to his home in the middle of a barren nowhere, where he lives with his dutiful daughter (Erika Bok).  We see the repetitions of their day over the course of a week.  Getting dressed, getting water from the well, boiling potatoes for breakfast and dinner, washing clothes by hand, chopping wood, and trying to tend to the obviously dying horse, who stops eating around day 3.  The deterioration quickly spreads like a disease. The horse can't pull the cart into town.  The well goes dry, which means they can't boil potatoes.  They can't get away because of a seemingly perpetual dust storm that never ceases raging.

THE TURIN HORSE sounds a lot like the kind of depressing foreign film that THE SIMPSONS mocked when Bart prank-called a bar in Sweden and asked for someone named "Olaf Myfriendsaregay."  That joke had a punchline where the bartender realizes it's a hoax and grimly thanks Bart for "showing me the futility of human endeavor."  That quote is very applicable to THE TURIN HORSE.  I was also reminded of Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN (1975) in the sense of showing how daily, clockwork routines and patterns get thrown off course and cause a chain reaction of increasingly dire circumstances.  The film also brought to mind Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011) in the way that it shows the processes of these days in seemingly real time.  There's a memorable scene in MEEK'S CUTOFF where 1840s frontier settler Michelle Williams spends about four minutes of screen time loading a shotgun...because that's how long it would really take.  Tarr and co-director Agnes Hranitzky started shooting THE TURIN HORSE in 2008, and it was a long, arduous process itself, as Tarr didn't complete the film until 2011.  As harsh and unflinchingly real as it is, THE TURIN HORSE has an almost hypnotic element to it.  Tarr's trademark long Steadicam takes are on full display, abetted by an unforgettable score by Mihaly Vig. Shots linger, sometimes in silence (there's very little dialogue) and for so long that you think you're looking at an old black & white photograph.  It's a dark, somber, and depressing film, but it's also a strangely beautiful one.

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