My last entry, on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, included a cheery affirmation that the film was definitely not a gruelling and austere arthouse folly. I’ve got to tell you know that I make no such guarantee for Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s new film The Turin Horse. One of the first subjects I wrote about on this blog, and indeed one of the reasons I started the thing up in the first place, was Tarr’s 1994 epic of mud, drunkenness and venality Sátántangó (read all about it here), which I’d become fascinated with despite its many offputting characteristics (its preposterous length, its slowness, its opening eight-minute shot of cows milling around by some sheds). I can’t quite nail down why I’m so taken with this sort of thing, but it’s something to do with the sheer anti-commercial bloodymindedness of it, coupled with the skill involved in pulling off long and complicated tracking shots which never lose focus or compromise compositions. This stuff takes time to assemble, witnessed by the scarcity of Tarr product since 1994 – just two films, the mysterious, beautiful and unsettling Werckmeister Harmonies, which is probably your best entry point if you want to sample this highly idiosyncratic style of film-making, and the Georges Simenon adaptation The Man From London, which is in Tarr’s terms a shameful sell-out, featuring as it does an intelligible plot (something about a working man stumbling across a hold-all of ill-gotten money, much like No Country For Old Men), properly motivated characters and even, in the shape of Tilda Swinton, an actor familiar from mainstream Hollywood movies.
And now here’s another, The Turin Horse, and possibly as a reaction to the perceived compromises of his previous film it’s Tarr’s most hardcore and alienating project yet. The director has said that this will be his last film and indeed it’s difficult to see where he can go from here: a five hour single take of an apple core slowly going rotten or a film forming on the surface of a mug of tea maybe? There doesn’t in fact seem to be much point even writing about it, as a vision this stark would appear to be hermetically critic- and review-proof, but I’m going to go for a bare description anyway, if only so I’ve got a record of a remarkably singular experience.
The film starts with a black screen and a voiceover that explains the title: in 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a coachman flogging his horse in a Turin street, and this incident seemed to provoke the philosopher’s subsequent nervous breakdown that rendered him speechless and bed-ridden for the last eleven years of his life. This sounds potentially pretty interesting, but has scant relevance to what follows in the film: with a perhaps expected perversity Tarr chooses to show what happened next to the horse and its owner rather than Nietzsche. And what happens next is more endurance test than history lesson – the action (for want of a better word) plays out over six days, and at times feels like it’s being shown in real time.
The coach driver returns to his home, an isolated and rundown farmhouse in the centre of a dip in a fairly featureless rural landscape. He lives there with his grown-up daughter, who every day helps him dress and undress (he has the use of only one hand), struggles out to a well to fetch two buckets of water, washes clothes and prepares a meal consisting of one boiled potato each, eaten with their bare hands. The rest of their time is spent trying to persuade the horse to tow a cart, or eat, with no success, drinking some dubious-looking spirit or looking out of a window at the relentless gale that shows no sign of ever letting up. They hardly ever speak, apart from an occasional profanity when frustrated by one of the chores and a perfunctory “it’s ready” to signal meal times. We start to get clues that all is not right with the world beyond this tiny universe – a neighbour barges in at one point to cadge alcohol from them and spout a portentous analysis of the failings of society, the nearest town having apparently gone to ruin, and later an unruly cartload of travellers turn up to avail themselves of the well, seemingly now a rare source of water – but options for the man and his daughter are limited, and a half-hearted attempt to leave comes to nothing. Eventually even basic elemental phenomena like water, light and fire fail, and the film ends with a tableau that even Samuel Beckett might have found a touch harsh and nihilistic. All the scenes in the film play out in single takes averaging about five minutes each – 30 of them in total (I know this for sure. I was counting). Some of the takes are accompanied by a dirgy waltz scraped out on violins, some are more or less silent apart from the incessant sound of the wind.
So what’s the point? What’s the appeal? Why would you possibly want to spend two and a half hours in a dark room watching the universe slowly grind to a halt like this? Well, partly it’s because despite all the unremitting salvation-denying bleakness of it all this is one beautiful film to look at: it’s consistently brilliantly composed and lit, with the high contrast black and white cinematography serving the various rugged and striated textures on display to maximum effect, be it the rough brickwork of the farmhouse, the matted mane of the harbinger horse, the knots and lines of the wooden tableware or the magnificent lines and crevasses of the wild-haired old man’s face, which looks like it’s straight out of a Caravaggio painting. Partly it’s the craft with which the film-makers have executed these extended vignettes – the most striking example is the very first shot in the film, in which the old man is riding his cart at a gallop back to the farmhouse. It’s the most dynamic scene in the film by some distance, with the point of view wheeling miraculously from directly under the horse’s head to several metres away behind roadside trees and shrubs to show the cart’s progress in profile and back again. I can’t begin to imagine how a camera move like this can be achieved so fluidly.
Whatever the reason, The Turin Horse does in the end succeed in being a profound experience rather than just a depressing one, although it’s not in all honesty a film I could possibly recommend as conventional entertainment. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the week since I saw it, anyway. I guess Béla Tarr’s mission on Earth is now complete, and at least he can say he gave us fair and due warning.