Tarr B_la has a great fall
It's funny - not like, "oh my God, I can't stop laughing" funny, but little about European art cinema is - it's funny, I say again, that the first Tarr Béla film that made me bolt upright and think, "YES, THAT'S IT. That is the Tarr I've been waiting for" would also be the one whose effectiveness is most divorced from anything else in the director's career. But there you have it anyway: Almanac of Fall, a brazenly non-realist domestic drama set entirely within the crumbling confines of an old apartment, with five characters trapped like fish in a glass bowl, forced to enact their parts in a narrative of cosmic alienation. All of which is pretty much par for the course compared to the run of films it set up (or is that Tarr for the course? Ha ha! You have to make your own jokes, with Tarr Béla), which are similarly presentational anti-dramas tinged with supernatural impact though not really anything actually supernatural. The key difference being, everything from Damnation to The Turin Horse depends significantly for its effect on its stark black-and-white cinematography. Almanac of Fall depends, just as significantly, upon its use of lurid color.
(At least, I think it's lurid. Like all of Tarr's films, Almanac of Fall exists only in somewhat disappointing quality on DVD, and the color retention screams "lousy transfer of an already faded distribution print". So one is obliged to guess a little bit).
The film takes place inside the flat of a mother and adult son. They speak Hungarian, so it's fair to assume that the flat is in Hungary, but even more than that, it is detached from any sort of outside world, in a state of something like pre-apocalyptic dread (the Fall of the title, though the film is never so literal as that). They have names: she is Hédi (Temessy Hédi), and he is János (Derzsi János). But the film is largely disinterested in any personalising details; they, like the three people they interact with, are figures more than personalities, and though everyone in the film is identified by name, on multiple occasions, I still tended to think of them by role: the mother, the son, the mother's nurse (Bodnár Erika), the nurse's lover (Székely Miklós), the drunken tenant, a professor (Hetényi Pál). A commanding majority of the film - all but three or four scenes, in fact - consists of two-handers between every possible pairing of characters, all of them building up, somewhat cryptically, the narrative situation. The mother is ill, but not, like dying right this minute ill; the other four people are all mostly interested in figuring out what's going to happen with her money if she dies, or if she is made to part with her money through some other means. This comes out in various conspiracies between individuals, far more often conspiracies that go splat, and far most often of all rancor between participants so sharp and full of disgust and distrust - both outwardly and inwardly directed - that the notion of a conspiracy is almost laughably optimistic.
Trying to dissect Almanac of Fall out on the level of plot is an exercise in madness, though: this is a mood piece on the subject of how people abysmally fail to co-exist happily and peacefully with each other. The script is heavy with lengthy conversations in which people lay out in minute detail what they're thinking, feeling, and hoping, but in the hushed, choking sound design, their words tend to sputter and clatter and all of the talking in this, the last exceptionally wordy Tarr film, feels like a hollow attempt at fabricating meaning, not a way of communicating meaning. It is a study of broken, isolated people in a cold, dying environment.
And here we come to the color. Elsewhere, Tarr explores this spiritual nihilism and personal isolation using a palette of filthy greys and whites, but in Almanac of Fall he employs an unconventional and singularly counter-intuitive mix of blue, reddish-orange, and green. They are not, as far as I can tell, colors meant to signify, at least the blue and orange aren't. There's no color symbolism involved as such. What does matter is that blue and orange are complimentary colors, direct opposites on the color wheel. And while this tends to make them visually appealing (there would be no plague of orange & teal color correction in modern cinema if it didn't work on a primal level), they still contrast with each other, violently. Tarr and his tiny army of cinematographers - Pap Ferenc, Gulyás Buda, and Kardos Sándor - do everything in their power to highlight that contrast, sometimes, by using one color for the foreground and one for the bakcground, frequently using a simple system of shot-reverse shot conversations in which the two halves are saturated in conflicting colors. The result is a physical mis-match that our eyes and brains have a difficulty parsing; it's almost easier to read it as two separate conversations spliced together by accident. Everything we know as trained watchers of movies and humans who exist in a full-color world gets itchy and antsy watching these scenes; it is a visceral and direct expression of the film's theme of disparate elements of humanity being crammed together and not fitting.
The use of green-yellows - not sure which is more accurate; again, the DVD I watched was hardly reliable - is more conventional and thus "easier", but no less effective. Simply put, the bilious hues which represent the film's visual "normal" are the colors of sickness, decay, and atrophy; the film's way of visually evoking the world created by the dehumanised, disconnected psychologies it depicts. Everything is wrong and getting worse, and the film's grotty color palette underscores that, vividly.
Outside of that, the rest of the film is solid and well-crafted, if not quite as bold: there are a handful of tremendously showy camera angles (one from below a glass floor, looking up at a violent fight) that seem weirdly at odds with the rest of what Tarr and the cinematographers are up to with their sinewy slow movements revealing physical locations inch-by-inch, but the off-kilter feeling thus produced certainly works in the film's favor. I am especially impressed, though, by the fine work done by the director's established editor Hranitzky Ágnes (also the production designer, and credited for the first time as Tarr's co-author) in breaking moments down into arrhythmic flashes - it is a film that often cuts before you expect it to, with the last shot in particular slamming shut harshly - and composer Vig Mihály, who would collaborate on every future Tarr film, and whose first work with the director is full of droning tunes that feel like worms under the skin, coming across in oh-so-'80s orchestrations that feel even more alien now than they would have in '85.
None of this, I am sure, makes Almanac of Fall sound pleasant, for it certainly isn't. It's a film about physical, spiritual, and emotional disconnect between people forced to share space, and it dramatises in vivid detail the corruption of the parent-child relationship into something rancid. That it does this with striking cinematic flair is what makes it captivating, compelling art, and that Tarr simply depicts without making any judgments is what keeps it from being a miserable wallow. It is still glacial, chilly, and pessimistic - the film, in other words, where the Tarr of '90s and '00s fame and infamy arrived to stay.