Saturday, 14 November 2009

Cinema: Katalin Varga (2009) / dir: Peter Strickland

Note: Like all of my texts, this is full of spoilers. If you haven't seen the film yet, then don't read.

Although Katalin Varga has a mystery at the centre of its plot, it is told with a directness and simplicity that grips throughout.

The set-up is very simple: Katalin (Hilda Péter) has been dishonorable in the past, her nine-year-old son Orbán (Norbert Tankó) came from the seed of another man, her husband and family throw her and her son out onto the street to fend for themselves. Katalin leaves the village with Orbán on a wooden cart. It is all very rustic and earthy. It feels like a film set in the past, perhaps a few hundred years ago, giving it the atmosphere of a fable told around a camp fire.

As we follow Katalin on her journey we get two surprises. The first is that this is set in modern day - she passes through a city with concrete blocks of flats, and she uses a cellphone. The second is that she has a plan. She heads for a village, meets a man at a dance, seduces him, then kills him. Up until this point, Katalin has been presented as plain, with her eyes downcast, her head in a scarf, her clothes in mute colours. Now, as she becomes a killer, her eyes are wide open, her hair is released and wild, and she is bathed in the red light of the fire. There are some shots where she is the spitting image of mad Sister Ruth (played by Kathleen Byron) in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947), but perhaps that's just me.

Although we are horrified by the murder, we have also been prepared - we suspect that Katalin was raped by one man, as another (the man she murdered) looked on - and so we still retain sympathy for Katalin as she escapes through the countryside with her son.

The landscape of Transylvania is full of rolling hills topped by luscious forests. It is green and fertile, a place where people follow the rhythms of nature rather than bend it to their will. As Katalin cuts a swathe through this landscape, first on cart, and then on foot, we are always behind her, following, trying to catch up.

When she meets the rapist Antal (Tibor Pálffy), he is in heroic pose - a gypsy with a faintly aristocratic dignity, reaping a crop with his scythe. Antal and his beautiful, gentle wife Etelka (Melinda Kántor) take in mother and son, and the four become close: Katalin with Etelka; Orbán with Antal.

It is obvious that Antal and Etelka are deeply in love, that they are living in a hermetic dream world as only lovers can. Etelka communicates this to Katalin, with the only disappointment being their inability to have children. Etelka talks of this as Antal and Orbán horse around like father and son. There is an instant bond between Orbán and Antal.

In contrast with the loving couple in this rustic idyll, it suddenly becomes apparent that Katalin is out of place. Even her son feels comfortable and at home with the couple since he receives little or no love, affection or trust from his mother during their journey. There is a darkness about Katalin. She is a force of horror and disruption, waiting to explode. You can see that her original plan was to kill Antal, but upon meeting him, seeing how attractive and gentle he is, she is uncertain about how to proceed.

This tension is shown, like the rest of the film, through the eyes of Katalin. We can also hear the tension through the film. The soundtrack - and I'm talking about natural sound here: speech, wind, fire crackling, wooden wheels on rocky roads, etc - is extremely loud, intrusive, disorientating.

On a boat trip, Katalin reveals her past. She was led into a forest and raped by one man as another looked on and did nothing. Afterwards she wanted to die, but the forest and all the animals that it contained came to her, and saved her. It is only then, watching Katalin telling her tale, in contrast to the serenity of the loving couple, that we truly realize how mad and driven she is. She wants revenge and is willing to pay away price for it.

It is only now, when Katalin reveals her secret, that we began to appreciate that all the loud, discordant sounds that we hear is how she hears the world - the world is always a sharp noise in her ears, keeping her on edge. And the noises are mainly of the forest, the creaking trees, the crickets - all the things that saved her nine years previously.

As Katalin exacts her revenge, another cycle of revenge comes into play, leading to the films shocking and unsettling conclusion.

The extraordinary story of the making of this award-winning film can be read is several places.
Here is an interview with Peter Strickland for FilmTett.
Here is another where he talks in more detail.
And here is Peter Strickland's blog.

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