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Almanac of Fall (Bela Tarr, 1984)
“Even if you kill me I see no trace/This land is
unknown/The devil is probably leading/Going round and round in circles.”
The preceding quote, written by Pushkin, appears on a title card at the start of Bela Tarr’s Almanac of Fall, and as much as surely is lost in the translation, it seems to provide startling insight into the late work of the director. The enigmatic nature of both the deceptions people are capable of and the environments that they choose to inhabit can be felt in his later films’ tone. This mention of the devil, in a stark contrast to the strictly realistic naturalism of Tarr’s early films, offers a first sign of the hint of supernatural control that would continue to crop up in each of Tarr’s subsequent features. There exists a certain level of despair in the notion that people aren’t in control of their own fate and, as such, assigning blame to an unknowable and omnipotent figure seems an act of desperation. Most importantly, however, is the allusion to the insidious, circular nature of world events. Tarr’s insistently pessimistic films each present a serious of politically tinged disappointments, only to cruelly reveal them as phases in an unstoppable, continuously repeating cycle.
Set entirely in a single dilapidated mansion, Almanac of Fall is a claustrophobic chamber drama that tells the story of the home’s five residents, all people who in one way or another live on the fringe of society. The initial two inhabitants, a mother and son who live together, suspicious of each other’s actions, seem to emit a beacon of discontent that slowly attracts more transient souls to their fold. Without even a single shot to establish the world that surrounds the house, the mood becomes inescapably intimate. In this oppressive environ, the people talk of their fear to feel anything, especially confidence in the seemingly good intentions of their peers. Even sexual desire, like everything that enters the house, becomes hopelessly domesticated by the insistence of the environment, and can’t offer escape from these confines. Characters can’t help but eavesdrop on one another in such tight quarters, and before long their cabin fever manifests itself through the intense territorialism that grips each of them. Initially it seems that the mother’s fears that everyone is out to get her money are paranoid delusions, but they’re proven to be true by the scheming of the other tenants. The familial espionage that ensues contains an intrinsic social critique, since it looks at society’s most fundamental building block, the family unit. Throughout, Tarr seems exasperated by the capacity of each to believe that they are justified in their machinations, and in his inability to accept their individual actions, he seems to be expressing disgust and outrage at all of society.
By the end of Almanac of Fall, the characters’ contradictions have crisscrossed so many times upon themselves that the rationale behind any justification of one’s ill deeds seems an exercise in pointlessness. Each individual becomes their own moral center in this context, and as such their validations of their actions seem academic. Everyone seems entirely content to ignore anyone else’s point of view in order to further their own interests. Even though a comparatively innocent fall guy is found by the end of the movie, the punning title of the film seems to describe the decline of the group (and metaphorically society) as a whole, because they so willingly embrace the idea that the problem with their group lies within only one of their ranks instead of realizing that each of them contains the seed of corruption. Someone asks, “If we lost trust in everyone what would life be?” at the end without any sense of irony, and that seems the biggest joke of all, given the movie’s resolutely negative appraisal of humanity. The closing strains of the soundtrack, which feature a Hungarian version of “Que Sera Sera”, seem more in touch with the movie’s eventual, worn-down apathy. People might be scum, but whatever will be, will be.
With its expressionistic use of color and its rapt attention to compositional space, Almanac of Fall is Tarr’s first feature that could be described as the work of a formalist. The choice to use non-naturalistic lighting schemes makes the film look like at times like a version of Von Trier’s The Element of Crime with the whole palette of colors unleashed. Every scene changes the colors that the characters are lit with, and in each new look at them Tarr opts to use a different, increasingly unconventional camera angle. At first, the camera subjectively peers through doors and windows at its subjects, giving a voyeuristic, furtive feel to even the most mundane of actions. As it continues it tries looking at them from above, from a distance, and most audaciously, from underneath the floorboards. The cumulative effect of this approach is the impression that Tarr can’t quite understand them, even though he’s growing ever more desperate in his attempts to do so, and that all his style is an attempt to find a way to compartmentalize their behavior in a way that allows him to discern their intent. The final sequence of Almanac of Fall, which shows the remaining members of the household reveling amid the decay after they’ve expelled one of the traitors among them is bathed in a glorious white light, giving the ironic impression that somehow the situation has improved. It’s only once one considers that white light is also the combination of each of the other colors in the prism that it becomes apparent that Tarr seems to be suggesting that he’s showing the audience in the white light the start of everything they’ve seen before, and that there will almost definitely be a repeat of the despicable cycle just witnessed.
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