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Director Bela Tarr is a minimalist filmmaker. (If you want to know more about what that means, check out our review of Werckmeister Harmonies, Damnation, or Gerry.)

Almanac of Fall comes earlier in Tarr’s career (1984) than either Damnation or Werckmeister. The film is shot in color, and it lacks some of the thematic depth of his later films. Still, it shows a director in tight control over his art.

Cabin Fever

The boarder entrusts his life to the boyfriend
The boarder entrusts his life to the boyfriend

The movie takes place entirely inside a house with five residents. There is a mother and a son, a nurse who helps the mother with her injections, and a professor with money troubles who is boarding there. A third man, probably a boyfriend of the nurse, seems to have invited himself to stay, although he projects a confidence that makes himself feel like an important part of the household.

The movie spends a lot of time pairing up these characters, two at a time, and pitting them against each other. Sometimes the pairing is good-natured, as when the mother has a deep and sincere conversation with her nurse’s boyfriend. But more often the pairings are conflicts. The nurse spreads gossip about the others. Her boyfriend intimidates the boarder. The mother and son fight, going so far as to threaten each other’s lives. In one of the most surprising scenes, shot from directly below, the nurse’s boyfriend physically assaults the boarder, who ends up curled up and cowering on the floor, floating in space just in front of the lens.

The best performance, by far, comes from Hédi Temesssy, playing the mother, who is at turns trusting, angry, cold, and resigned. She commands the camera’s attention in her scenes and seems to dictate the pace and mood of the house. That’s not to say the other actors don’t hold their own. On the contrary, the nurse, has much keeping-up to do and Erika Bodnar handles it very well. The boyfriend (Miklós Székely B.), too, seems to command respect, even though his character’s position seems tenuous.

Style and Substance

Tarr, whose later films are shot in black and white, here uses color stylistically. Another critic called it “expressionistic,” but I don’t think the color actually expresses the inner feelings of the characters. Instead, Tarr seems to be playing with red, green, and blue light. Sometimes the warm and cool colors are sharply separated; the face on the left lit with red, the face on the right with blue. Other times, the colors mix, washing out any natural hue and giving everything a pallid glow. Though I can hardly guess what effect Tarr was trying to achieve, the effect is to make the entire house seem even more unnatural, unpleasant and inhuman than it already is.

As well-planned and well-executed as the film is, the movie is still a movie. As such, it needs to entertain or enlighten an audience. That doesn’t really happen in Almanac of Fall. Instead, the movie feels like a filmmaker’s exercise, whether in the lighting, the cinematography, or in the frustrating interactions among the characters. Tarr made this film in 1984 — called a transitional period by film scholar Peter Hames in the DVD booklet — and one wonders if he’s trying out some techniques to see what works, more for his own practice than for the benefit of an audience. In another essay included in the booklet, Jeremy Heilman seems to agree, saying that Tarr’s style seems desperate in its attempt to understand the characters.

Even after two viewings, I couldn’t say with certainty who all of the characters were and what their motives were. Some of that is surely intentional, but it’s possible that some of the confusion comes from a bad translation of the subtitles. Almanac of Fall is a dialogue-heavy film, so much of what happens, happens in words. I often wished the subtitles used a name instead of a pronoun to make it clear which “he” or “she” is being referred to. Maybe that ambiguity exists in the source — only speakers of Hungarian will know for sure. In any case, adapting dialogue for subtitles is an art and a balancing act, and I wonder if the titles in Almanac of Fall struck the right balance between faithful and informative.

All in all, the film doesn’t draw enough conclusions or raise enough thought-provoking questions. What it does is wrestle with communication and relationships. But without an interesting conclusion, or a substantive idea to gnaw on, Almanac of Fall doesn’t make for a very satisfying movie-watching experience.

For Film Wonks

Although I’ve mentioned a lot of negatives, Almanac of Fall is still worth a look for fans of Tarr. Some of the cinematography is outstanding. I’ve already mentioned the scene filmed from below (using a floor of glass below which the camera can lay). In another, two characters are speaking to each other, face to face. But the camera is placed so that each is reflected in a pane of glass, and each one “faces” the camera. The reflections are separated by a dark panel in a door, and one man has been reflected twice, making his visage dimmer and blurrier. Their conversation is vaguely threatening and, if I recall correctly, one man is lying to the other. The vagueness of their visual forms seems to tell the audience to look deeper.

And although I didn’t particularly like the primary-colored lighting, a student of photography or film could learn a lot from Tarr’s work.

All in all I can’t recommend Almanac of Fall to the casual viewer. It has interesting form and photography, but it doesn’t add up to much in the way of entertainment or insight. It’s not that there is nothing to see, it’s just that what’s there may only be of interest to film wonks.