Judge Clark Douglas' life is largely comprised of long, uneventful, unbroken takes.
A breathtaking exploration of a man's indestructible desire for freedom and happiness.
In a way, I feel a little unqualified to give a proper critical examination to Bela Tarr's The Man From London. This is because I am a film critic, and The Man From London feels less like a proper movie than it does a 139-minute piece of video art designed to play on a loop in a gallery. That isn't really meant as a compliment, but feel free to take it as one if you're the sort of cinephile who finds movies like Out of the Past and The Big Sleep horrifically crass productions that set aside their greater artistic obligations for the sake of doing something so trivial as entertaining the audience.
Technically, The Man From London is a film noir. It's shot in soft-focus black-and-white, features a lot of shadows and takes its sketch of a plot from a novel by crime writer George Simenon. The central character is Maloin (Miroslav Krobot, Wrong Side Up), who works as a switchman at a railway station by the sea. One night, he witnesses one man give a briefcase to another. Shortly after, the two men get into a heated argument, and the man with the briefcase is dealt an unintentionally fatal blow and shoved into the ocean. The other man is forced to flee immediately, and Maloin wanders down to the dock to recover the briefcase for himself. He fishes it out of the water, opens it and discovers an enormous sum of money. It doesn't take him long to decide that he's going to keep the money for himself rather than reporting what he's seen to the proper authorities.
This is a fairly standard noir set-up, but the execution is anything but conventional. The film opens in striking fashion, as Tarr establishes the setting of this opening sequence with a long, smooth, painstakingly constructed tracking shot that carefully observes the surroundings from Maloin's perspective. The shot remains unbroken for a full ten minutes, but it's strangely hypnotic and effective. It does a splendid job of giving us a very distinctive sense of atmosphere, and it's a bold way to start a movie and blatantly establish a sense of place. However, it's not long before we come to the sad realization that this shot isn't just establishing the film's atmosphere; it's also establishing the film's pace.
The Man From London moves along in crushingly slow fashion, plodding along like a dying tortoise from start to finish. To be sure, there are more tracking shots and individual compositions to admire. Tarr's scenes are artistically impressive in and of themselves, but there is little genuine drama and even less feeling in this overlong exercise. Tarr keeps us at a distance from the characters at all times, partially with the detached manner in which he observes them and partially in the way he requires them to spend a good deal of screen time staring blankly into space. In one scene after another, Tarr gazes at the blank expressions of assorted characters, but these shots are exasperatingly empty (contrast them to the compelling manner in which Jim Jarmusch examined Bill Murray's blank face in Broken Flowers).
Another strangely distancing effect is the dubbing, which is used poorly throughout. Some actors are clearly speaking French or Hungarian, but they've been given hilariously awful English-language dubs (one supporting character in particular croaks his lines in a cringe-inducing fashion; the voices are consistently poor matches for the faces). Meanwhile, it's clear that Tilda Swinton (whose considerable talents are wasted in a heavily promoted supporting role that basically amounts to a long cameo) is speaking English, but she's been dubbed over with a screechy Hungarian voice. There isn't a lot of dialogue in the movie, but whenever characters actually speak, it destroys any hypnotic mood Tarr may have been establishing.
I should confess that this is my first encounter with Tarr, and fans of the director assure me that it's one of his lesser works. I've been told that his Werckmeister Harmonies is something of a surrealist masterpiece. Even so, The Man From London has pretty effectively dampened my interest in exploring his work further, as the experience was maddeningly alienating, intensely unsatisfying and punishingly lengthy (Tarr's direction is so sluggish that he makes Tarkovsky's films feel like Looney Tunes shorts in comparison). Even if you're the sort of viewer who spends a good deal of time at the local arthouse theatre, The Man From London is the sort of arthouse flick which makes one yearn for a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced palette cleanser.
The DVD transfer is adequate, though the image is less detailed than I would like. This is partially due to the cinematography, which opts for the old-school haziness of The Good German rather than the crisp sharpness of Good Night and Good Luck. Blacks are suitably deep, though there are a few scenes which look a little murky. The audio is exceptionally low-key (dominated by a great deal of silence, with occasional bursts of dialogue and snippets of accordion-driven score), but sufficient. No supplements are included on the disc.
The Man From London is a movie for art lovers who generally dislike movies. It serves less as a tribute to noir flicks of decades past than as an aloof dismissal of them. Its moments of genuine artfulness are overwhelmed by some bewilderingly poor decisions and its tedious nature. It's reported that Tarr spent four years making this movie. He should have spent another four figuring out how to make it worthwhile.
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Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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