Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Turin Horse is a Hungarian film by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, released in 2011, and now showing in London. It is a long, heavy, and deeply melancholic experience. Yet worth it.

The film is black-and-white and shot in only 30 long takes. The story concerns the day-to-day lives and routines of an elderly man, his daughter, and their horse. They live in rural Hungary, in a stone cottage, with oil lamps, water from the well, and in almost complete isolation.

The film opens with a Nietzsche anecdote, or perhaps fable, relayed by Tarr: Nietzsche witnessed the brutal beating of a horse by its hansom cab owner, and intervened. He threw his arms around the horse, and sobbed. Overwhelmed and distressed by the experience, Nietzsche never recovered and spent the rest of his life demented, or so the story goes.

We move to the opening scene of the film, as an elderly man drives his horse home, in a storm. He is met by his grown-up daughter, and together they stable the horse, the first of many routines we witness as we observe their lives over the following six days.

The old man cannot move his right arm, and his daughter helps him dress and undress twice a day, every day. She cooks their meals, always the same: a boiled potato, which they skin with their fingers and eat on wooden plates with salt, and rarely finish.

The daughter rises each morning to get water from the well.

The daily routine is monotonous and relentless.

The wind and the storm are unrelenting. The routine is unrelenting. The staring is unrelenting: the father at the daughter as she dresses him, both of them staring out of the only window, at the same bleak landscape, endlessly, every day. The sound is unrelenting, of the wind, and of the silence between father and daughter, who almost never communicate.

Some change does occur. The horse becomes unwell and stops eating. The well dries up. The three main characters, man, woman and horse, attempt to leave, but fail and turn back, unable to fight the wind. The routine re-establishes itself, this time with an increasing sense of doom and foreboding.

There is a profound feeling of melancholy, of decay, and of death in this film, as if the routine and repetitiveness and hardship of just existing is too much to bear. First sensed by the horse, this feeling of the unbearableness of being is also experienced by the human characters.

This is a bleak film, but, having some awareness of Tarr’s work, I was not surprised. Yet I was mesmerised by it and touched, despite the fact that he makes no attempt to endear the characters to us. There is no attempt at empathy, as the father and daughter remain anonymous and detached, even alien, to the end. But it remains thought-provoking and moving nonetheless, reflected by what it says about the weight of the routines of our lives, the silences that encompass them, the sheer heaviness of just existing, and how difficult it can be to alter our path.

CQ

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