Making its long-anticipated home-video debut, Béla Tarr’s languid version of Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon’s The Man from London is a study in dislocation. Compounding the vicissitudes of an international coproduction with the challenge of adapting foreign source material (along with regular co-writer László Krasznahorkai) and working with a polyglot assembly of Hungarian, Czech, and British actors, Tarr expands on an atmosphere of uncanny unnaturalness by dubbing them, and badly at that, into French. More than likely, this was a deliberate attempt at subversion, akin to the disarticulation Tarr and Krasznohorkai perform on Simenon’s murder mystery, refracting Gallic noir through the lens of Hungarian miserabilism, and rending asunder a fabric of events that might, in other hands, have constituted a thriller, making way for Tarr’s trademark extended takes and measured, intricately choreographed camera movements. Granted, to the aesthete within every cinephile it’s guaranteed to be never less than ravishing; nonetheless, biding your time until all the pieces come together at a narrative or emotional level, much like waiting for Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt) to put a full stop to one of his interminable sentences, might try the patience of all but the most diehard moviegoer.
Rather than articulating existential and metaphysical notions, like those that occupy the foreground of his comic-apocalyptic Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr establishes in The Man from London a profoundly phenomenological mode of address. The endlessly roving camera seems more interested in examining the threadbare textures of a massive overcoat, the gaunt and careworn face of an anguished widow, or the weather-beaten planks of a seaside shack’s door, than in capturing what few moments of dramatic action actually occur. This distanced disinterest is reflected in Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a railroad signalman stationed in a watchtower near some nameless, decrepit city’s inner harbor, gazing impassively down as boats arrive and disgorge passengers who are immediately shunted aboard a nearby train. Early on, Maloin witnesses a crime and only slowly (being Tarr, oh so slowly) decides to involve himself, retrieving a sodden suitcase from the harbor’s dark waters. We can’t even properly say there’s a moral worldview on display in The Man from London, despite the dangling signifiers of economic need and impoverishment, since Tarr remains determinedly outside the realm of the psychological, observing the impassive exteriors of his characters as though they were hewn out of blocks of wood, no more nor less compelling than any other feature of the downtrodden décor.
What cataclysm remains in The Man from London is to be found in the interstices, the often stunning transitions from one 10-minute tracking shot to another, toward which the confluence of sound design and score points the way, though it’s always achieved a syncopated beat early or late, owing to Tarr’s penchant for holding a shot long after any narrative necessity has blanched and faded away. As well, there’s the almost Manichean monochromatic cinematography. Witness the shot in which an exhausted Maloin collapses onto his bed in a room flooded with dazzlingly white light, until his tightly wound wife, Camélia (Tilda Swinton), comes in and closes the blinds, sinking the room into an impenetrable Stygian darkness. As rapturous a moment as any in recent cinema, it’s the inverse of, say, The Tree of Life’s incessant upward-swooping, light-besotted camerawork.
Zeitgeist’s DVD transfer is inarguably one of the finest Region 1 presentations of a Béla Tarr film, delivering Fred Kelemen’s stark black-and-white cinematography in its proper anamorphic aspect ratio, with healthy levels of grain intact and little in the way of artifacts. The robust Dolby track really delivers The Man from London’s variegated sound design, whether lapping waves or ponderous footfalls, as well as Mihály Vig’s enchanting score, equal parts luscious and lugubrious.
Only a ludicrously misrepresentative theatrical trailer, courtesy of IFC Films, that amps up the negligible genre trappings and overplays Tilda Swinton’s all-too-brief role. A booklet with some pretty pictures and informative liner notes might have been nice.
The Man from London may be a lesser work from Béla Tarr, but masterful direction and austere cinematography, not to mention Zeitgeist’s top-notch transfer, make it an indelible, if occasionally exhausting, experience.