Looking back from 2014, Tarr Béla's second feature, The Outsider, is a staggering break from the filmmaker's normal way of doing things. That's not fair at all to the movie and moviemaker who, in 1981, had no idea that he'd one day become Europe's crown prince of long takes, slow plots, and stasis, but it's really hard not to be taken aback by it - having purposefully not done any research on the director's early films before starting this retrospective, it never occurred to me that I'd end up seeing something so willfully uncharacteristic as a Tarr film in color. Which is by no means the only thing that sets the film apart aesthetically, but still: color. Everything I associate Tarr with demands the hardness of stark black-and-white, which just goes to show that you should prejudge and make assumptions about nothing. Especially not three-decade-old Hungarian social realist films.

That would be the other big thing that separates The Outsider from Tarr's later work, and even his earlier feature Family Nest, though it is much closer to that. This is an unusually clear-cut example of European realism of a sort that would become absolutely inescapable a generation later, though in 1981 it was still a bit unusual to see something as stripped down and grotty as this story of András (Szabó András), a twentysomething young musician making ends meet in a series of ill-fitting jobs. The one we first see him practicing is as an orderly at a mental hospital; other than the chances he gets to play violin for the patients, it doesn't seem to be very rewarding, and he gets fired in fairly short order for getting drunk with a patient, anyway. For the bulk of the two-hour movie, András floats from job to job, never being very reliable or good at anything, and as a result incurring the wrath of his girlfiend, Kata (Fodor Jolan), who's already losing patience with him on account of his insistence on giving all his money to his child by an ex-lover.

That is, by the way, the entire plot. So even at his most outwardly conventional, at least we can say that Tarr makes a point of thwarting our expectations for dramatic situations that movie characters forward. Nothing moves the people in The Outsider forward; this is the whole point. The film isn't a specific indictment of a dysfunctional society, as Family Nest is, but a close examination of how that dysfunction plays out on the individual level. András is both a pitiable character and a somewhat repellent one, hoping to coast by on some foggily-expressed bohemian ideal perpetually, holding onto a very romantic and thoroughly useless idea of how True Artists fit into the world that makes him powerfully ill-equipped to deal with the realities of life in Communist Hungary. Tarr sympathises with him to a degree (as he'd almost have to, being himself a young artist at the time The Outsider was shot), but doesn't let him off the hook, regardless. His romantic outlook frequently serves as nothing but mask for laziness and the terror of having to go out and fight for scraps in a horrible environment of desperate, starving people; for all that she's a bit of a stock character, Kata's harangues to this effect are generally persuasive and it's as easy to share in her frustration and impatience as to share in his artistic struggles.

The film's running time is a bit long to sustain this simple situation; Tarr had not yet begun to master the exquisite art of using duration as a means of testing the audience, and The Outsider merely feels like there's too much repetitive dialogue, not like it's being stretched out to create a particular mood. That said, the film's slow pace and lack of affect does neatly mirror András's own life, making it a reasonably effective character study, if nothing else. It certainly helps that the non-professional Szabó (no-one in this cast was a professional) inhabits the part so comfortably and laconically, making it seem thoroughly plausible that the unfocused longeurs of the movie are exactly in tune with how his character views the world. I would want this to be no-one's first exposure to Tarr's cinema, for it is a bit pacey without earning the impact of it, but it does surely feel like there's some point to it.

To present this narrative, Tarr and his pair of cinematographers - Pap Ferenc (their second collaboration of four and Mihók Barna (their first of two, four if you count acting) - relied on grainy 16mm with flat colors and a boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, a whole mess of close-ups cut together with some choppiness, and all of it handheld. It was not an unknown style in Europe at the time, though it was nowhere near as commonplace as it is now, ever since the Dardenne brothers made it their preferred technique in the late 1990s. Still, even by the standards of 1981, this was hardly a groundbreaking or challenging or complex way to tell a story about poverty-ridden youth letting life slide by them. It is good realism - an acute psychological portrait and an unforgiving depiction of life on the edges in contemporary Hungary - but it is not particularly unusual realism, and the use of color simply underlines the unpleasant reality that herein lies a Tarr Béla film with no particularly aggressive and lingering visuals; even Family Nest, generally a less mature movie, had a more pointed and purposeful use for its suffocating realist interiors.

If the film challenges us, that comes in the unexpected form of its music, something else that Tarr wouldn't do much with later on; or rather, what he did with music was nothing like this at all. The Outsider is frequently punctuated with songs of all kinds: folk music, disco, rock (there's a cover of "House of the Rising Sun" that is maybe my new favorite version of that song). The film's most powerful moment finds András and Kata screaming at each other to be heard in a discotheque where András has a DJ job, playing some insipid piece of dance music about Christopher Columbus as his girlfriend tries to make her anger and frustration known; perhaps its second-best sequence comes at the end, during a rousingly amateurish performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on violin. It's a little clichéd, but not therefore inaccurate, to propose that music is the film's emotional release valve: András is stalled-out and inept in all ways, but the performance of music gives him some kind of release, wakes him up, and proves that even in the midst of a lifeless wasteland like Hungary under Communism, there is a way to find some brief measure of satisfaction and expression. That's a shockingly sentimental approach for Tarr, which is why I tend to wonder if I'm not misreading it altogether; but he was young, and the film does spring to life whenever the music starts up... The point is, the film lapses into convention more often than not, but it plays those conventions well, and as part of the fledgling director's learning curve, it is sturdy and satisfying and earnest. None of which are quite as good as "creative", but you make do.