Judge Daryl Loomis always watches out for the cross swallow.
Three stories. Three generations. One bizarre and shocking universe.
Director Györgi Pálfi (Hukkle) explores the last 60 years of Hungarian history, using a gallery of the grotesque in Taxidermia, a celebration of the body and all its excesses.
Facts of the Case
As an orderly in the Soviet army, Vendel (Csaba Czene) gets kicked around plenty by his superior officer. He gets his revenge by impregnating the officer's wife, but gets shot in the head for his trouble. The officer raises Kálmán (Gergely Trócsányi) as his own, and develops the boy into a champion competitive eater. Kálmán marries the female champion and, together, they make their own baby boy. Kálmán expects Lajoska (Marc Bischoff) to follow in his footsteps, but instead the boy grows up a sallow, strange taxidermist. As Kálmán's disappointment grows, so does his belly, while Lajos suffers his abuse and prepares for the ultimate stuffing.
It would seem as though Taxidermia would be shocking, but it never really tries to be. Instead Pálfi uses strange and sometimes disturbing imagery to create a fantastical modern history of Hungary; spinning a triptych of stories connected by blood that focus on the body in three very different ways.
The first section is likely to shock the most, both because we can't anticipate what's to come and it looks at the sexual side of the human form. We meet WWII soldier and peon Vendel on "Bathing Day," upon which he has to monitor the bath water during the one day the men and women of the camp get to clean up. Vendel likes to watch, but it gets him in a lot of trouble. After suffering abuse all day long, he finds relief in the onanistic pleasures of the flesh. The trouble is that every time he does, flames shoot from his penis. Why? I don't know. It's the sort of outrageous imagery that populates the film, in an almost giddy way. At every plot turn, there's some new grotesquery waiting for us, though Pÿlfi isn't just here to gross us out. Taxidermia is, through and through, a beautifully made film. The sharp, colorful cinematography by Gergely Pohárnok is fluid, changing from section to section, but always steady enough for us to appreciate the imagery. In this first section, he gives us bright white backgrounds behind a drab army landscape, while punctuating these cold, sad images with quick-edited, hot close-ups of faceless and sexless body parts in the bathtub.
In the middle section, we move into a Krushchev-era Soviet Union to find Vendel's son fully grown—though massively overgrown may be the better way to put it. In Pálfi's alternate universe, competitive eating is a real spectator sport (not the marginal hotdog eating marathons we see in reality) and Kálmán is one of the best in Hungary. His gorging techniques are the stuff of legend; he's even had a vomiting technique named after him. If that sounds gross, wait until you see it. This part focuses on the body as a consumptive and political machine, with glory and destruction weighing heavily on both sides. Just like real Soviet athletes, these eaters are instruments of the state; heroes who stuff their gobs with 45 kilos of caviar. Coached by a process of binging and purging, this section is heavy on the fluids. Eating, vomiting, and eating some more doesn't sound like an appetizing watch, but Pálfi constructs these scenes with a surprising beauty. Pohámok's sweeping camerawork is most vibrant in this section, a pastel romance of food and Soviet politics.
Though the three sections could easily stand alone as separate short films,
In the final section, as we move into modern times, Taxidermia comes together as a beautiful, cohesive whole. After sex and food, we now have the body as a work of art. It's the strange final days of taxidermist Lajoska Balatony, whose father Kálmán is still alive, but in a state something taken directly from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Lajoska wears a ghostly pallor because he has only ever done three things in his life: take care of his immobile father, raise his vastly oversized cats for their own kind of eating competition, and practice his taxidermy, a skill at which he has clearly grown adept. His work is stunning, alive in a way that neither he nor anybody around him can be. His father, the athlete, is angry with his son's artistic tendencies. Lajoska is tiny and weak, more like his grandfather than his father, who never knew Vendel. This story is framed by the narration of a doctor who comes in with a human fetus he wishes stuffed and encased in a glass bulb. The resulting Christmas ornament is a bizarre image; one of many one I won't soon forget. Pohárnok shoots this section more closely to the first than the second, but with a stronger sense of the macabre. The opulent rich, decked out in their shining white fabrics, fascinated with an exhibit of Lajoska's work, contrasts sharply with the inky shadows of his studio. These images carry the most formal beauty of the film and, as we descend upon visuals that recall Michelangelo's David, Pálfi's vision of the body as both perfection and grotesque becomes clear.
Taxidermia would be a shocking array of disgusting images, if the whole film wasn't so funny. All of the performances are fantastic; not believable, but filled with scene-chewing glee. The copious special effects only add to the strangeness, and the near seamless combination of practical and CGI is a joy to watch. Pálfi's film is a joyous look at the body, both in form and function, one I will likely watch over and over again.
E1's DVD for Taxidermia is a good release. The image transfer displays Gergely Pohárnok's gorgeous cinematography very nicely. The white levels are clear and stark, while the blacks are deep and solid. The detail is strong and I found no noticeable errors. The sound may be merely a 2.0 stereo mix, but the dialogue, music, and often-disgusting ambient effects come through loud and clear. The only bonus feature is a strong 45-minute making-of featurette that details nearly every aspect of the production. From the concept and development, to the performances and effects, there is a great amount of information packed into a manageable length.
Parts of Taxidermia may not be for the faint-of-heart, but those who can stomach a whole lot of flesh and fluid will find much to enjoy. Beautifully filmed and excellently performed, it's 90 minutes of grotesque fun that will leave you with a feeling you might not be able shake for a while.
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