Posted by: kfugrip | October 1, 2007

Ninety-four: The Man From London

At this years New York Film Festival, the 45th, there are so many films I want to see that I would have to quit my job and empty my checking account to watch them all. Instead I’ve had to settle for see two (maybe more) films this week. The first film is The Man From London, directed by Bela Tarr.

The Man From London is based on the novel by Georges Simenon and is about a man who witnesses a murder and takes a suitcase of money from the body. What follows is an existential glimpse at the effects of this event on the man.

(possible spoilers)

What I liked: Bela Tarr is a director whose style involves elaborate and extended shots which often follow characters as they walk through the worlds they inhabit. The Man From London is no different. The film is shot in black and white, like the other Tarr films I’ve seen. The opening shot is a slow craning up, on a long lens, of a passenger ship. The shot is deliberate as it inches up to the deck of the ship, the entire screen is sometimes blocked out by the blackness of beams in the foreground. In this portion of the shot, which lasts maybe four or five minutes, nothing happens. Normally this would irritate me but it was done in this case to show the audience what the film was going to be. As an audience member you would have to be patient. You are going to see everything. When the action does begin it’s typical film noir material, with a shady deal, a suitcase being thrown off the boat, a train leaving filled with passengers, and a murder. This is all in one shot and understated. There are no theatrics involved in the shot, the performances, including the murder, are dry and unaffected. It was masterfully done.

The film is filled with moments like this. Virtuoso camera moves and a cast of wonderful faces, faces that you rarely see in American films. The inspector character in particular has a face that looks like it was carved from wood, with deep grooves and sharp angles. Tarr spends a good deal of time with his camera pointed at character’s faces as they walk or as they sit and drink, watching them think. The cinematography and locations help create a world where only these faces can exist. No one in the film is conventionally beautiful and even Tilda Swinton, who I find attractive but wouldn’t be described by many as beautiful, was “uglied-up” for the film. It’s something about the black and white photography that draws more attention to the faces of the actor. This cinematography in particular, with it’s use of film noir tropes – pools of light, fog, high key lighting – is a character in the film on equal ground with the actors. The long takes reveal all of this in exquisite detail. Anyone who has read a few of these reviews knows that I love the long take style and Tarr takes it to extremes. It is almost shocking when he cuts in the middle of an action, which is a rare occurrence.

Though using the language and plot of a film noir, the movie is an existential exploration of people touched by the events of the story and it succeeds in that.

What I didn’t like: Existential stories are some of the most un-cinematic subjects a filmmaker could choose to tackle. How does it translate visually? I think that Tarr does the best he can but at certain points his idea of existential angst is to follow the character in a medium close-up as they walk. The movie was 135 minutes and too much of it is spent watching nothing for a long time. Tarr also likes to stay in a scene after the action is done. This often leaves an actor standing and doing nothing, staring in the distance, for thirty seconds or more. At a point it becomes distracting and takes me out of the movie.

Another negative was the dubbing on most of the actors, especially Tilda Swinton. Swinton’s voice double had a voice that was quite a bit higher than her natural voice and since Swinton was speaking english, the lips weren’t matched. She has few scenes so it was less of a problem than it could have been but it was still a distraction and took me out of the movie.

The Man From London, in all it’s existential glory was a film I liked quite a bit but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to a Tarr neophyte. Werckmeister Haramonies would be a better entry point, seeing as how it was my entry point into Tarr’s cinema.

4 stars

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  1. great review. very in depth. i have also decided that i like your new format (e.g. what i liked/what i didn’t like) it’s especially helpful on a review like this where there is A LOT to be said and the movie itself is extra complicated and layered.

    sidenote: based on this review, you are right, i’m very glad i didn’t go see this with you, small seats be damned it sounds like i would have been miserable to the tenth power.

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