Sunday, 20 September 2015

Taxidermia (2006)

Director: György Pálfi
Screenplay: György Pálfi, Zsófia Ruttkay, Lajos Parti Nagy
Cast: Csaba Czene, Gergely Trócsányi, Marc Bischoff, István Gyuricza, Piroska Molnár
91 minutes

Synopsis: A cinematic triptych consisting of three generations of men in a family. The grandfather is a sex obsessed grunt during World War II positioned at a farm with three women and his superior officer. The son is a competing speed eater in Soviet era Hungary vying for the affections of a female champion for a factory and fame. The grandson is a frail, pale taxidermist in post-Soviet modernity sick of his blob like father who decides to use his skills for a bold, taxidermist contraption.

The 2005 and 2006 Cannes Film Festivals, reading of them as a young lad getting into films, felt like looking into the most provocative cinema in existence, shocking the critics who attended the festivals continually. Violence, from A Bittersweet Life (2005) to Wolf Creek (2005) horrifying the audience. Sex, from the use of real oral in Battle in Heaven (2005) to full scenes of hardcore sex in the comedic drama Shortbus (2006). There was Princess (2006), a potentially hypocritical Danish animation where a priest goes around killing evil pornographers and letting his toddler niece bludgeon one's genitals to pieces with a pipe. Then there was Taxidermia, which went with every taboo it could have its hands on. György Pálfi's debut, Hukkle (2002), was far and away more abstract in tone, a plot filtered through a greater emphasis on the images and sound, but Taxidermia in adapting two short stories by Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy, with an addition by the director himself, went as far as it could with transgressions instead. This immediately becomes apparent when one of the first images seen is an improvised flamethrower penis, which if anything certainly starts the film in a way few others could top.

Real sexual penetration, buckets of vomit, death, a foetus being taxidermied, decay and general depiction of the corporal nature of the human body, Taxidermia could be seen as mere shock for shock's sake, but like other Cannes premiers as such Battle In Heaven or Antichrist (2009), there is visibly more beneath the surface that makes them more than this. Instantly what stands out is the grubby realism that off-sets the taboos immensely from surface shock into a general theme of bodily transgression. Hukkle was a true original, a difficult film at first because it immerses itself entirely into audio/visual texture - one of the most memorable scenes for me is entirely from the perspective of a mole including the sounds of tunnelling in the soil. While not as explicit in this direction, in favour of the methodical tone and look of many modern world cinema films, Taxidermia shares the emphasis on the environments the characters are depicted in. Dirt lined farm land in WWII era Hungary to a modern day supermarket in clinical white and drained under overbearing light fixtures, Pálfi is materialistic in depicting life in terms of texture, in full uncensored glory.

Compiled with taboos through its three main time frames, the result is prevented from being trite but possesses a queasy importance. Nothing feels tasteless, instead a macabre series of analogies where the mortal body is exposed in full detail with the same mindset like the diagrams of a Grey's Anatomy book. Even more fantastical content like a baby born with a pig's tail and its subsequent chopping off are depicted as matter-of-fact, which makes the viewer squirm more than trying to intentionally offend viewers. Politics are not openly expressed in the film and neither are the historical timelines explicitly discussed. Communism nor the Second World Warare  openly referenced, though communism is in the background of the second story inherently in small details like a Red Star made up a caviar. Instead you have three portraits of men who are dictated by the body and a specific drive dictating them in their lives.

The grandfather is dictated by sex, isolated with only a bathtub in the barn to sleep in and his own increasingly distant desires to comfort himself. Rather than directly tackle Hungary during a time when it was both invaded by Russia and Nazi Germany, it follows an isolated cog in the army on the lowest strung, with reprieve from his monotonous life as a lowly grunt only through constant masturbation and gristly improvisions. His desires become more and more away from social norms, including a change in the tale of the Little Match Stick Girl, and when desire is finally sated with another willing person it also leads to death. His son becomes a figure of idolisation but the use of speed eating as the crux undermines it, speed eating suggesting an incredible decadence where food is eaten but not actually consumed as it's regurgitated immediately after, luxuries such as pudding used as training material for young portly kids. The son eventually is pushed out of the competition by the changes in the environment, the bitter joke for me of the whole segment in the reference to a fellow athlete having surgery to expand their gullet, even the ritual of wasting food by the competitors besmirched the same way muscle implants would in bodybuilding. With the grandson, the world is stale and merely exists despite itself as he tries to have a life, flirting with a girl who works at the supermarket checkout who has no interest in him and developing his taxidermist's craft to a superior level of artistry. It becomes too much for him, the literal weight of his father too much to bear on his shoulders and events partially his own fault taking place, including why keeping overweight housecats that will eat anything is a bad idea, leading to drastic changes. [Spoiler Warning] He is the only who tries to become more than he is through a Rube Goldberg self-taxidermy machine. However someone else stumbles across it and takes credit for making the result the grandson's art. [Spoiler Ends] For modern audiences when there is a sense of the post-post modern in society still let alone in the 2000s, the final segment has great resonance that is further enforced by the mere inkling that Hungary lives in a post-Communist state that how profound significant for Eastern European countries and parts of German, making one wonder if this staleness has greater implications now for them in consumerist society.

While sadly material is lost in translation for me because of my lack of knowledge on Hungarian history, it cannot be lost that for all the transgressions all three pieces are depictions of individuals attempting to find respite through the corporal flesh itself, neither morally and spiritually guided, or by abstract concepts like bravery to ideals, but through their desires that can be dictated by decay, rot, liquids, the sex organs and everything that is material on themselves. It is effectively imagining Hungary as if a living organism made from flesh and bone with all the disgraceful anatomy and functions on full display.

Technical Details:
Hukkle fragmented its narrative through sound and visuals, but Taxidermia places a narrative first whilst retaining an elusiveness of what the meaning of the three mini-plots are, mood pieces retaining the attitude in presentation of sensory content. There are moments that are heavily stylised, such as showing the many uses of a bathtub through a camera that rotates through and up from the floor as if an upside-down mirror reality was underneath the room, but these are rare instances for a sedately paced work. The film is closer to the dramas from the same decade coming from Europe that emphasised long takes and/or contemplative sequences of scenes. Touches of (possible) CGI are used, all understandable uses for things that would've been difficult to pull off. (I'm unsure whether the continuous vomit in the second part was CGI or not, but either way it actually adds to the strange effect of it being puked up, so casually by its speed eating characters, volatile like a garden hose suddenly spurting briefly when moved).

György Pálfi with the film and Hukkle does feel different from a lot of provocative directors like a Gaspar Noe. Someone like Noe has many things to champion in their style, but there is an interesting cross section of these transgressive films made in the 2000s which, while they are still being made today, really set up two camps in the last decade, between the heavily stylised works of a Noe to the more glacial, considered films from Catherine Breillat's Anatomy of Hell (2004) to a Battle In Heaven. The themes of the films are individually different, many of which are very serious in their messages, but this division is clear. Pálfi seems to sit between both camps, and it's a shame he's only made a few films and many of them aren't available in English language territories to my knowledge. One which will be impossible to license, Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012), uses shots from other films of actors and actresses to make a character piece of a couple, which from seeing a trailer emphasises further that alongside an interest in the absurd in people, Pálfi has an obsession with how a viewer reacts to images and sounds in different ways.

Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Grotesque/Mind Bender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Despite all the taboos being broken from left to right, Taxidermia is very clearheaded in what it intends to depict. It's not the shocking content which places it on my Abstract list but the content for it altogether. The black humour to it all and the open absurdity of the content, which I could've easily neglected, help the film in this and in terms of overall quality. Far from a grim, sickening series of events onscreen, the grimness becomes humorous if one's sense of humour can appreciate the bleakness. Some moments are so clearly comical that this is impossible to ignore, such as a cock meeting another cock, not only evoking Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (1929) but also an openly silly joke whose obvious punch line is hilarious in its crassness. The tone reveals as well how the apparently normal is just as strange in context as the shocking content, and this is where abstractness is apt in talking about the film.

Personal Opinion:
The exact meaning of it all could be lost to me, but far from merely to repulse, Taxidermia comes off instead as what happens if Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1842) and its depiction of human absurdity, the same dry humour here, was sewn together to more shocking content. The most pointed issues are these characters' lives, not the shock factor, which merely are exaggerations  or explicit depictions of their emotions. Coming back to Taxidermia after all these years, I'm impressed by it more so because of its focused restraint.

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