Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/12 & 10/16
World premiere: 3 May, 2014, Jeonju International Film Festival

I am totally unfamiliar with director Pálfi György's notorious/beloved 2006 Taxidermia except by the outlines of its reputation, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the common thread I've seen in the reviews I've peaked at, that his newest film, Free Fall, is basically like that movie, only a little bit more audience-friendly and easy to digest. And if that's really the case, than whoa, must Taxidermia ever be a trip. For if ever there were adjectival phrases that I'd go miles out of my way to avoid applying to Free Fall, "audience-friendly" and "easy to digest" would be way the hell up near the top of that list.

The film is a series of vignettes, united in that they all take place in one apartment building, and are at least nominally triggered by the presence of an old lady (Molnár Piroska), who gets the first of the vignettes when, following a routine but nasty spat with her husband (Benedek Miklós), she slowly carries her ancient body to the roof of the building, with her little wheeled grocery cart, and jumps off. After a few minutes, she picks herself up off the pavement and starts to crawl back up the stairs. And each of the remaining stories takes place on one of the floors she's crossing, or to one of the people she spots, or behind one of the doors she passes.

Structurally, it feels a little bit like an anthology film, with one theme to be broadly interpreted by a host of filmmakers using their own unique style; the key difference is of course that Pálfi is only one man, and the wildly different genres he quotes are all of his own devising. And quite a spectacular range it is: there's a strange, anti-erotic setpiece involving a couple's lovemaking in an apartment kept so antiseptic that they don't even expose their flesh to each other; an angry sexual relationship imbalanced by a third partner and the use of jolly sitcom canned laughter on the soundtrack; a creepy thriller-style sequence between a new mother (Kiss Diána) and a kindly but off-kilter gynecologist (Hegedüs D. Géza), along with a dark fantasy, a boring dinner party where nobody pays attention to a nude woman, and so on.

The notion uniting all of these, as far as I can tell, is that they each highlight a form of disconnect between people: an old married couple that barely communicates, parents who ignore their son's hallucinatory distress, sex as the inability to connect with a beloved partner. At no point do Pálfi and his co-creator, Ruttkay Zsófia, lean on that theme so overtly as to make the project in any way didactic or programmatic; honestly, it wasn't until about halfway through the eight segments that go into the brief (80-minute) feature that I began to notice that they even might be linked in some way beyond the elaborately random conceit of peculiar goddamn things going on in this one building. I take this to be a good thing: Free Fall is such a fluid experience, working at the level of curious, bizarre sensation rather than as a series of just-so connections in the writing, that I don't think it would be have as appealing if it spelled everything out and clarified what it was up to. Sometimes, watching as what appears to be inchoate nonsense coalesces into a unified whole is more exciting than something clean and polished. What am I saying? Always. It's always exciting.

Free Fall is certainly neither clean nor polished. The individual segments range from the terrifically rattling and perfectly executed (the gynecology sequence) to the befuddling and thematically strained (the naked woman) to the outright bad (the sitcom parody, which makes its point by about the one-third mark and just keeps on truckin'). The film is messy, and I'd suggest that the film must be messy: what fuels is it is Pálfi's freedom to keep changing up the pacing, the mood, and the visual style, and strict filmmaking discipline would unquestionably get in the way of that. The movie needs to explode out of the dark recesses of the mind, or at least off the illusion of having done so; neat, crisp scene structure and tight editing and a clear, fluid line connecting all the segments would shatter that illusion.

It's not for everyone; the gynecologist sequence alone would make it hard viewing for the parents of small babies, for starters. And the whole thing is spiked with gross, bleak comedy that is tremendously funny, but hardly universal: though it has a clear moral sensibility (communication and connection are better than the absence of those things) it's a fucked-up movie describing a fucked-up world and finding it too ridiculous to take seriously. Underneath all the weirdness, the film has a certain amount of despair twined around its desire for humans to be healthier and better, and those things all combined make for a distinctly dark and twisted viewing experience. But it's a strong, if wildly inconsistent version of what it is: mordant Hungarian bleakness turned into something savagely hilarious, and catnip to the kind of people for whom that kind of thing is enjoyable at all.