[NOTE: On occasion of my discovery that The Man from London is available through Netflix Instant I am reproducing this post that first appeared on my old blog about a year ago (http://ericarima.blogspot.com/2010/03/man-from-london.html) after it ran at Facets. A year later, I still like this piece even if the end does feel rushed and reads like I am trying conclude an essay with some forced summary.]
In September 2007, when The Man from London was still making its way through the festival circuit (it screened in Toronto a week earlier and was scheduled to screen in Chicago the following month), I saw Bela Tarr introduce a screening of Werckmeister Harmonies and Prologue at Facets in Chicago. While his visit was cut short, he did introduce the film saying something to the effect of, “[These people may not be good people or smart people], but they are my people.” The bracketed part of the quote is loosely based on a two and a half year old memory, but the last part, “but they are my people,” is an exact quote; and I had heard that he made a similar introductory remark to The Man from London at the Toronto screening. To my mind, more than the mind-blowing choreography of a 13-minute shot, it is this affinity with his characters that I find most appealing in Tarr’s work, especially considering the class of characters represented in his films.
But can the choreography of a 13-minute shot be separated from the affinity the director has for his characters? The long takes in Tarr’s work allow the characters an organic sense of dignity. The camera waits on the actor, on the character. In an interview on Artifcial Eye’s DVD release of The Man from London, Tarr refers to Director of Photography Fred Kelemen as “a great picture hunter,” which is a telling metaphor for the relationship between the camera and what you ultimately see on the screen in a Bela Tarr film.
The Man from London is a 2 hour 13 minute, 29 shot, adaptation of a 1933 novel by Georges Simenon. In a French coastal town along the quay, railway signalman Maloin witnesses from his tower what appears to be customs fraud when a suitcase is thrown overboard from an incoming passenger boat. While remaining a passive witness, the fraud escalates to confrontation. Maloin eventually comes into possession of the suitcase to discover the following day that the well-known British Inspector Morrison has arrived to investigate.
While the above may sound like a plot description for a Soderbergh vehicle or even similar to No Country for Old Men, The Man from London remains very much a Bela Tarr film. Information is released to the viewer not in a way that creates suspense but in a way that shows the viewer how the events are affecting the emotional/interior life of Maloin, who up until now, it is implied, has led a monotonous life (this monotony is nowhere better expressed than in the background noises where we frequently hear some form of repetitive sound whether it be a banging, a knocking, or a pounding, frequently of an unknown origin). The only exposition that explains the plot comes in shot 15 (of 29; about 45 minutes into the movie), when Inspector Morrison tries to get Brown to surrender the suitcase. Maloin, who unbeknownst to Morrison although suspected by Brown, is in possession of the stolen suitcase and overhears the whole conversation.
Rather than focus on the getaway or the violent conflicts, The Man from London focuses on how the change, the disturbance in mundanity, affects Maloin’s interaction with his overly stressed wife Camelia (Tilda Swinton) and his daughter Henriette (Erika Bok from Satantango). Maloin comes to take on more gravity than just a character; he becomes our guide through the moral universe of Bela Tarr as Tarr’s/Kelemen’s camera covers him from every direction. In the hands of a master like Tarr consequence and responsibility resist becoming petty didacticism or punishment.
Typical of Bela Tarr films, the dialogue is postdubbed. But in this case the actors spoke their native languages on set and were later dubbed over in French or English. The dialogue does not sync up very well, which can be distracting; but the dialogue is sparse to the point where it can almost work as a silent film.
The Man from London may be inferior to Satantango and >i>Werckmeister Harmonies due to its more conventional and straightforward plot and complications with the synced dialogue, and thematically the subject isn’t as apparently weighty as we have seen in his undisputed masterpieces. But if this isn’t a masterpiece by Bela Tarr standards, it is a masterpiece nonetheless and continues his refusal to distinguish between the cosmological and the moral/sociological.