I have an embarrassing confession to make... I was very much looking forward to The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr's latest, so much so that it was the first film I bought a ticket for at the Edinburgh Film Festival. And the excitement was reaching its peak when the man himself turned up on stage to introduce his film. I even witnessed an indie fanboy giving him the kind of vocal display of admiration you would more expect to see at Comic Con when Xena appears. Yet, after an hour, and with an other hour and a half of running time left to go, I got up and left. Where did it all go wrong?
I had only seen two of his films before, yet I still had an idea of what I was getting myself into, given how unique his style his: the stunning black & white photography, the insanely long takes that would drive ADD supremo Michael Bay to despair, the deep and metaphysical subtext...
The films I had seen were The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and The Man From London (2007). I absolutely love the former, about the nefarious influence of a travelling circus on a small town, which introduced me to his style. The surreal imagery, the contemplative pace, the metaphysical musing... The latter was an intriguing if not entirely successful attempt to adapt a Georges Simenon novel, and infuse it with his own style. I am a big fan of contemplative cinema, and his films have a strangely hypnotic charm.
I did not want to read anything about The Turin Horse to avoid being influenced by the interpretation of other reviewers. All I knew is that it was based on an anecdote about German philosopher Nietzsche, and how, while already in a fragile mental state, he completely lost it while witnessing a horse being mistreated, throwing himself at it and spending the rest of his life afflicted with depression.
The film is an extrapolation of the circumstances leading to that event. It opens with a very long take of an old man and his horse painfully and slowly pulling a cart. Ten minutes later, the man is back at his farm. His daughter serves him a spare meal consisting of two boiled potatoes. They they go to bed. The next morning, the horse is refusing to move and do any work, which infuriates the old man, as we presume the animal is their only lifeline. Then it is time for another meal of potatoes. A man pays them a visit. And sadly that was it, I left, this had taken an hour.
Of course I regret leaving (although having read the reviews, not much else happens except for a devastating final scene), and I almost fear that I am giving ammunition to those who abhor any venture to arthouse territory. Indeed, this film could almost be seen as case study of how pretentious world/arthouse cinema is seen by those people: the arty black & white, the long shots, the meaningful glances that speak volumes...
Looking back, the more I think about it and the more I realise there is a lot to be admired. The bleak existence of the father and daughter in a permanently wind battered landscape almost takes the film into the realms of the intellectual science fiction of Andrei Tarkovski and the likes. There is a particularly devastating aspect to the repetitiveness and tediousness of their life, and their struggle to merely survive. And some reviewers have seen this as a descent into apocalypse, with the final act of cruelty towards the horse sealing the fate of humanity.
But I just have to admit, this proved to be far too radical, even for me. The hangover, the sleep deprivation, and the puny legroom at the otherwise lovely Filmhouse in Edinburgh might be partly to blame. And to absolve myself of my crime against cinema and film reviewing, I intend on watching it again, in full, when it comes out. The only consolation I have is to remember how a much respected film reviewer at French paper Liberation freely admitted to dozing off during the 1998 Palme d'or winner Eternity and a day, so it happens to the best of us. And I certainly do not want to deter any of you from watching it. Give it a try and make your own mind up. Just be a bit more prepared than I was.