Magazine article Artforum International

Bleak House: James Quandt on Bela Tarr's the Turin Horse

Magazine article Artforum International

Bleak House: James Quandt on Bela Tarr's the Turin Horse

Article excerpt

"WHAT IS THIS DARKNESS?" a woman asks her father near the end of Be la Tarr's The Turin Horse as a sudden, fathomless obscurity descends on their isolated hovel. Of all contemporary filmmakers, the Hungarian director is the one most acquainted with the night, the cosmic desolation he infers from the vileness of humanity manifest in stark, tenebrous settings besieged by relentless elements. In Tarr's sodden, seven-and-a-half-hour niastcrwork Sdtantango (1994), his characters walk out in rain--and back in rain. In The Turin Horse, a fierce, incessant wind shrieks across the steppe, awhirl with dust and detritus, battering the house and barn where father and daughter exist in a kind of medieval perpetuity. When the storm finally abates at film's end, it brings not relief but suspension: A silence falls upon their abode so utter that it portends the end of the world. In what he has announced will be his last film, Tarr remains indifferent to anything less than the absolute.

This "sad, windy movie"--Tarr's self-mocking appraisal of the film--was inspired by the story of Nietzsche's encounter with a cab horse whose owner was thrashing it in the street. The weeping philosopher saved the poor beast from its tormentor, an event that some say precipitated Nietzsche's madness. Based on a short story by Tarr's "permanent" collaborator, writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai, that imagines the horse's life after the incident, the film grants a lead acting credit to Ricsi, the mare that incarnates Nietzsche's nag and was chosen, we may infer, for the "infinite sorrow" (as the script puts it) in her eyes. But like the abused donkey that is ostensibly the central character in Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the animal remains a secondary player in a drama of human iniquity and suffering. Turin chronicles six days in the lives of an old man, Ohlsdorfer, and his grown daughter--the mother is missing, unmentioned, though her photograph is briefly glimpsed--whose existence long ago settled into the rhythms of quotidian ritual. Their unvarying morning routine begins with the daughter helping him dress--he has a game right arm--after which he takes two shots of palinka, a clear fruit brandy. (When he instead swigs straight from the bottle toward the end of the film, the variant heralds impending disaster, as the slippages from the habitual do in the final entropic hour of another epic of ritualized domesticity, Chantal Akcrman's Jeanne Dielman [1975],

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Set in a world of scrub and stone, on a remote plain punctuated by leafless Tarkovskian trees, the film, which Tarr has called "hand-made," encloses its metaphysical enigmas in rough-hewn tactility. Turin records the austere rudiments of the pair's daily existence--the sole boiled potato that serves as their repast, occasionally adorned with a little salt; the daughter's grim trek to the well to fetch two pails of water--and announces each similar diurnal regimen with a biblical-seeming intcrtitle: "The First Day," "The Second Day " and so on. (Viewers intolerant of Tarr's structuralist repetitions have been known to groan when the fourth or fifth iteration arrives; Tarr denies us the seventh day, no doubt because the idea of sanctified rest lies beyond his ken.) The camera fastens on objects in lingering close-up (a flask of booze, the barn door, two wooden plates, a salver of salt) while the highly worked sound track exaggerates the squeal and rattle of a horse-drawn cart or the howl of the unremitting gale, the lineaments of this blighted life described with materialist precision even as Tarr leaves much else vague or unstated: the geographic and period setting; Ohlsdorfer's occupation; the age and name of the daughter; the name and nature of the unannounced visitor; the cause of the escalating calamity that befalls the house; and the force or event that prevents escape from these cursed environs. The time of year is also difficult to discern: Tarr insisted on shooting between seasons to avoid sunshine, rain, snow, and vegetation, to impart a certain timelessness, all the better to turn his tale into myth. …

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