The idea of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian master of such artful gloom-fests as Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies, shooting a film noir may seem as improbable as Hou Hsiao-hsien directing a kung fu movie. But it makes sense, given that the shadowy, noir-inflected black-and-white cinematography of Tarr’s features virtually knows no equal in contemporary cinema, and his preoccupation with man’s spiritual sickness in material wastelands seems amenable to noir preoccupations.
The Man from London, based loosely on a lesser-known novel by Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon, sees Tarr’s notoriously slow-roving camera-eye taking in the murder-and-money intrigue of a dark, unspecified port city. Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), middle-aged railroad worker spies an altercation between two men on a dock that results in one of them drowning, dragging a suitcase of British sterling down with him. Maloin retrieves the stash, only to have an English inspector on his trail to recover the loot. None of these proceedings are nearly as exciting as they sound, given that it takes 30 minutes for Tarr to cover the same amount of action The Bourne Ultimatum traces in 30 seconds. But those familiar with Tarr’s cinema look for their enthrallments elsewhere, such as in the impeccable choreography of a 10-minute take that can masterfully break down the dramatic and psychological tensions of a scene where most directors would lazily resort to a snappy succession of shot/reverse shots.
Man from London offers no less than a dozen such sequences, and the most stunning is set high in the building from which Maloin spies the incident that incites his moral crisis. Occupying his point of view, the camera sneaks along a series of windowpanes, window beams passing as violent bars of black, a heightening of tension purely through graphical rhythm. The spiritual malaise of Tarr’s other films infiltrates the proceedings here as well, expressed most vividly in a couple of excruciatingly extended close-ups of the murderer’s wife (Ági Szirtes, with heartbreaking eyes). Less successful is Tilda Swinton as Maloin’s hapless wife; Tarr reportedly chose her for her inimitable presence, but it’s more of the same underutilized frumpiness found in Young Adam, only worse for having her lines distractingly dubbed in Hungarian.
It’s the non-specificity of the environment, however, that keeps the film well below Tarr’s finest work. Man from London somehow manages to make its real-life Portuguese locations feel as generically sterile as a movie set; instead of inhabiting the authentic grime and dolor of local Hungarian life, Tarr seems to be working in a pan-European purgatory through which his elaborate camera movements are more clinical than communitarian. As such, this at times robotically-executed story depicting misguided greed as a palliative for existential emptiness has more in common with the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There than Tarr’s more heartfelt efforts.