In Hungarian with English subtitles. With Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter
The movie begins with a series of still images as the sun sets in Budapest, giving a sense of time passing, the sky darkening, the lights coming on in an elegant Beaux Arts building. The sky turns pink, gold, finally blazes in a red sunset that I was happy to wait for, almost as if in real time. Little did I know the slow pace of things to come, the concealment of the director’s aims, and the dark we would remain in as the audience. I love it when the filmmaker lets me figure out what is going on, and does not explain things in mind numbing detail, but this movie challenged me in ways I was not prepared for.
Irisz, the main character, a young woman dressed in a white blouse with a stand up collar, and wearing her hair in a modest style pulled away from her face, is in an elegant department store, being shown a series of hats. As the sales staff positions each hat on her head, Irisz remains mute, indicating nothing, not that she likes them or doesn’t like them, remaining completely passive. Finally after the third choice, she states simply that she came about the position, in other words, she is not looking to buy, but to be hired.
How frustrating, I thought, for the sales staff, to go to all that trouble. Why did not the woman explain herself in the beginning? How easy it is to put your case forward, before they have carted off your suitcase (why did they cart off her suitcase?– is that normal treatment for visitors to the store?) with your designs in them, that might help you get hired as a millinery designer. It turns out that Irisz is a Leiter, the family that founded the store, and she wants to work in the place that her parents founded. Everything we learn about the main character, and what actually drew her to Budapest from Trieste, in 1913, at the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is veiled in a mist of secrecy that at first I thought only the director of the film, who I was convinced was a sadist, is privileged to know.
The actress playing Irisz is given stilted dialogue to recite, and often no dialogue at all, even after being questioned, as if she has a hearing problem, or is on the spectrum, and would prefer not to communicate. But many of the characters behave in the same way. Questions, many questions, remain unanswered. There is a mystery to be solved, involving Irisz’s brother, and whether or not he committed a grave crime, and is perhaps at large leading a group of anarchists as they go about their work destroying the aristocracy. If only the point of view were not from Irisz’s unchanging eyes. She never changes expression until she is threatened with violence, as she is more than once.
I cannot say that the movie is without its pleasures. The hats are gorgeous, the production design speaking of the early 20th century’s visual delights. The costumes and sets and props speak of a time long ago, but once again made vividly clear. But the storytelling, including much of the photography, is excruciatingly frustrating. Just when you think you are about to get somewhere with the plot, a long shot of a person crossing a large field, takes what seems to be forever, and you wait until the person comes into focus, and you can see that even that does not help you understand what is happening.
There are moments of dramatic clarity, for example, when Irisz enters the royal household, and is asked to take off her shoes, and she finds her way into the inner circle of men who seem to be discussing some political crisis. But we never get to hear it exactly. Anything we learn is hearsay. Irisz keeps trying to break through, but I have never seen a more inarticulate heroine, or more stolid actor whose face remains blank.
The closing shot of World War I, and soldiers in a trench, jumps forward and signals the real meaning of everything that came before. So we in the audience are given the prelude, one woman’s relationship to it, and then skip forward to where it all led, without any of the dots connected. After a day of ruminating on the film, and its close adherence to the heroine, I realize that I was expecting a conventional narrative, a story about a woman, and her need to learn about her family, from whom she was separated for most of her life. But after careful reflection, I think that was not the director’s aim. He was not telling a story about one human being, but about a whole class, or several classes of people whose lives were forever altered once the aristocracy was shown to be corrupt. The images of the sunset at the beginning of the film were more important than I thought. They were not just pretty pictures. They meant to describe the end of a way of life forever.