Warning: the following post contains spoilers.
With his remarkable new film, The Man From London, Béla Tarr tries his hand at genre filmmaking, producing a laconic noir study that is as much a meditation on celluloid’s dual propensity to grant and withhold access to projected light as it is on man’s dual propensity toward vice and virtue. Based on a 1938 novel by Georges Simenon, the film tells the story of Maloin, an unassuming railroad switchman in a sleepy seaside town, who witnesses a crime and subsequently retrieves a suitcase full of stolen money from the water. Perhaps as a result of its artificially imposed generic structure, The Man From London does not resonate as deeply or unite form and content as meaningfully as Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), a visionary masterpiece that puts forth a cinematic theory of everything. However, the simple mystery story lays the groundwork from which Tarr’s unique aesthetic and philosophical vision springs forth unfettered. Tativille’s primary author and administrator - and my esteemed viewing companion, Michael J. Anderson - noted perceptively that The Man From London feels “more like the application of a style than its invention.” If Workmeister Harmonies is a fully original composition, The Man From London is an incredibly sophisticated set of variations on a theme, which is as old as the cinematic medium.
The film opens with an ode to light and dark, the bread and butter of classic film noir. As it moves into the harbor, the white form of a ship’s prow is broken up by waves of shadow. The rhythmic movement of the grey lines on the white surface hearkens back to the mechanical basis of cinematic production and projection – the advancing of the celluloid strip, the opening and closing of the shutter. This motion is carried over into the next scene where the Maloin observes the docked ship and a nearby train from his switch tower. A prolonged panning shot through the window reveals the entire bay, which is mediated by foggy lens of the window and broken up by the frame lines that divide its panes. This scene reminds me of a strange inversion of the Bazinian idea that films should offer the freedom of looking out a window; in Tarr’s tightly controlled diegetic universe looking out the window is an awful lot like cinema.
This becomes ironically clear a bit later in the scene when Maloin’s becomes the unwitting witness to a fight over a suitcase that ends in a drowning. The struggle between the two men, and the actions of the murderer – the eponymous Londoner/McGuffin Mr. Brown, who is played by Hungarian speaking Tarr regular János Dersi – brings the projector to center stage. The water and much of the area surrounding the harbor is absolutely black. The figures move in small, isolated pools of light that create a masking effect, changing the shape of the frame.
A beautiful instance of the extreme contrast between light and shadow occurs in a later scene, where Maloin’s wife (played by with melodramatic élan by Tilda Swinton – the film’s lone Brit – who, dubbed in Hungarian gives the silent film performance of her career) throws open the shutters of the flat where she lives with Maloin and their daughter Henriette, admitting a flood of brilliant white light that surges around her black silhouette. She subsequently shuts a set of thin inner blinds which mute both the brightness of the light and the blackness of the silhouette to blend with the gray on gray interior of the apartment. Similarly gray, although somewhat more cozy, is the seaside tavern where Maloin wiles away the hours playing chess with the lonely barkeep. While grizzled men drink, brood, and play the occasional game of pool. An extended take where we watch a regular customer eat a bowl of stew is like the cinematic equivalent of a passage from a Melville novel.
One of the film’s most buoyant passages is set in the tavern, where Maloin and Henriette share a comparatively warm if nearly wordless moment over a drink and a coffee, as the bartender attempts to seduce a coy customer. Throughout this scene the lovely, atmospheric accordion motif that provides the basis for the film’s soundtrack is a bit more insistent than usual. The reason for this is revealed when the camera turns away from the two couples and reveals an accordion player who accompanies an impromptu dance sequence involving two old men, a chair, and an egg. Tarr’s revival of the old play on diegetic film music has the effect both of briefly lifting the veil of existential angst that hangs over the film and highlighting the slippery relationship that obtains between Tarr’s sounds and his images.
As in his other films, Tarr alternately amplifies everyday sounds, artificially mutes them, replaces them with music, or cuts them altogether. This is in great contrast to the contemporary convention that tends to hold sound as a reality-grounding constant against which the image track can be more freely manipulated. For Tarr – as for the pioneers of the early sound cinema – the two tracks are not necessarily sutured but contingently juxtaposed, sometimes emanating from the same space, sometimes not. One of the most amusing uses of sound in the film occurs in a scene where Maloin buys Henriette a fur. The scene opens with an angled medium close-up of two salesmen who talk over each other in their rush to extol the virtues of their product. Like a caricature of the fast-talking characters that populate classical Hollywood films – especially those of Howard Hawks – these character’s artificially amplified over-dubbed voices seem to separate off from their sources and take on a life of their own, creating strange vibrations as they overlap.
The relationship between sound and image comes to occupy a privileged epistemological position at the film’s close. Having heard that Mr. Brown has holed up in a small hut he owns, Maloin decides to bring him some food, perhaps to assuage his own guilt about having taken the money. The camera stays outside the door of the hut, and no sound can be heard from the inside. When Maloin confesses to Brown’s murder in a later scene, the lack of any visual or auditory evidence leads the spectator to wonder what transpired between the two men. Was the sound of their altercation concealed from us? Film spectators are intimately familiar, even comfortable with the idea the appearances can lie. But the idea that sounds can lie is deeply unsettling.
Fittingly, the significance of the film’s final image proves to be as opaque as its climax is mysterious. Having learned of her husband’s death, a despairing Mrs. Brown stares off into the distance, as the camera frames her face in a searching close-up. After a few minutes there is a dissolve to a white screen before the closing credits. Having been told very little about Mrs. Brown aside from the fact that she must have loved the 'Man from London 'very much, the spectator of Tarr’s film is left to contemplate the image created when light is projected through celluloid onto a white screen, and to wonder – perhaps for the first time – what it might mean.
Lisa would like to thank film scholar Richard Suchenski for his insightful commentary following the film's screening at the 45th New York Film Festival.