Satantango (1994)

Dir. by Bela Tarr

Perhaps the best way to begin this response is to just be out with it: Satantango is not the Greatest. Film. Ever. Also, seeing it projected in 35mm at a good theater and in one sitting (minus two fifteen-minute intermissions) was not one of the defining experiences of my cinema-going life. And unlike Susan Sontag, I’m in no hurry to watch it again, once a year, for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, it was still one of my favorite film moments of 2006. How could it not be? After my only other experience with a Bela Tarr film, I wrote:

The opening image in Damnation is a remarkable, three-minute shot of coal buckets soaring like cable cars into the horizon. It’s the high point of the film, I think, because it lacks context. We are forced to sit patiently (or not so patiently), listening to the mechanical hum, watching as the buckets come and go, suspended in a moment of Gertrude Stein-like presence: “A bucket is a bucket is a bucket.” The image is alive and contradictory and frustrating and beautiful. By the end of the film, though — after watching our hero repeatedly fail in his attempts to capture love, and, finally, giving up in his efforts entirely — those buckets have become just another symbol of meaningless motion.

I felt the same frustrations throughout the seven-and-a-half hours of Satantango. There’s an odd tension generated by the collision of Tarr’s form/aesthetic (long takes, slow tracking shots, expressionless faces in close-up) and his vision of the world, which strikes me as pessimistic in the extreme. The influence of Tarkovsky is so heavy, I can’t help but compare the two, and what most fascinates me about the comparison is how Tarkovsky’s films, even at their most bleak (Ivan’s Childhood, Nostalghia), feel guided by a generous (spiritual?) wisdom, while Tarr’s seem to have been constructed in Nature’s laboratory. In contrast to Tarkovsky the Mystic, I imagine Tarr as the Skeptical Scientist, training his eye on his human subjects, determined to prove his cynical hypotheses.

Take, for example, the story of Estike, a young girl who is pulled from a sanitarium by her mother and brought back home, where she suffers all manner of neglect and abuse. We meet her just as she’s being tricked out of her last few cents by a thieving older brother, and then, over the next forty minutes or so, Satantango becomes her film. We see her act out in a desperate effort to take control of some aspect of her life, wrestling with her cat in one of the most disturbing film sequences I have ever seen. (“I am stronger than you,” she hisses at the terrified cat.) We see her make one last attempt at human contact, but, cursed and rejected, she is sent running off alone into the dark woods. We see her walk, without blinking, down an empty road, and this time we watch her even more closely; Tarr holds her face in focus for minutes at a time (“a face is a face is a face”). And then we see her die. We watch as she curls up beside her dead cat and eats the same rat poison that killed it.

Before she dies, Estike imagines an angel looking down on her with sympathy. Right now, as I struggle to find the next sentence — and despite the many misgivings I’ve already expressed — I’m aware of a tenderness in Tarr’s gaze that I didn’t experience during the film itself. I keep thinking of another shot, a minutes-long close-up of Estike’s face as she peers through a window at the drunken townspeople dancing in a pub. Why has she been rejected by this human community? Is she too pure? Too uncorruptable? (Are these even the appropriate questions to be asking of her?) And, even more importantly, does this human community have access to any means of redemption, whether transcendent or humanist? My sense is that it does not, but I’m feeling an urge to reacquaint myself with Tarkovsky’s Ivan, Bresson’s Mouchette, and the Dardennes’ Rosetta to test my own hypothesis.

Satantango is, inevitably, a defining experience in one respect: As a self-proclaimed lover of boring art films and a proselyte for the long take, I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to immerse myself in that aesthetic for an entire day. (I’m reminded of a friend in Toronto who recounted Andrea Picard‘s response when he expressed his misgivings about spending a weekend with Warhol’s Empire. “But what happens?” he asked. “Life happens,” she said.) Like the coal buckets in Damnation, the opening shot of cows being loosed into the fields in Satantango is as beautifully strange and breath-taking as any image I saw all year. Following it with a hundred more long takes pushes, in interesting ways, the limits of the affect. At times I became fatigued by it all and began praying for a cut. But two or three shots later I would become mystified again. I’d be curious to get the DVDs and hold the “boring” (in the best sense) shots up beside the “boring” (in the worst sense) shots to get a clearer sense of the distinction. Is it a matter of aesthetics? (Is beauty more compelling?) Is it a function of narrative? (The cat-wrestling scene was certainly the most heart-pounding.) Is it an elemental question of form? (Given similar content and cinematographic style, how would variations to mise-en-scene, for example, affect our viewing pleasure?)