The Turin Horse

August 26, 2012

Béla Tarr, 2011  


In terms of offering a measure of one’s cinematic temperament (one’s capacity to engage with films that eschew conventional film-going expectations), the film that blew every other out of the water for me in 2012 was Béla Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE.


Inspired by the anecdote in which Friedrich Nietzsche fell into permanent despair after trying to protect a horse from being brutally whipped by its owner, The Turin Horse ostensibly imagines the life of the horse, its owner, and the owner’s daughter. Those familiar with Tarr will have no hesitation in saying that cinema is rarely this good, but it's not a widely shared opinion. Some struggle to connect with the film, finding it unrelentingly grim, overly repetitive, and ultimately meaningless, the epitome of the "pretentious European art film".


So, what is it about certain films that they provoke such polarised responses – boredom or incomprehension on one hand, rapt exhilaration on the other? Perhaps it has something to do with cine-literacy – the capacity to ‘read’ a film. There are those (critics among them) who judge a film according to how effectively it presents well-drawn characters in coherent and engaging stories with tidy resolutions. As for subtext, forget it. The fact is that skills take time to develop, including cine-literacy, and the time and effort required to watch, think about, then re-watch films is simply out of the question for most people, or those for whom movies are just not that important.


Fair enough, but maybe there’s another reason why films like The Turin Horse have the power to deeply divide, something to do with one’s nature, the way one responds to the world, one’s aesthetic intuition, one's capacity to recognise the implicit poetry in things, especially things that lie beyond story. 


The long-takes favoured by Béla Tarr and his cinematographer, the great Fred Kelemen, are firstly an expression of cinematic poetry. In the hands of great cinematic artists, the moving camera is mesmerising and seductive, something Ophuls and Mizoguchi deeply understood and built their art around. That said, locked-off compositions can be just as poetic. The films of Tsai Ming-liang are a great example of extraordinarily poetic static images. For some viewers, these may simply be great looking shots that ultimately serve the story, while for others they are universes in themselves, the meaning and value of which accumulates as the film progresses.


But what of The Turin Horse itself: the stunning choreography of hypnotic long takes; the alternating viewpoints, perspectives, implications, and perceptions; painting with light; breathtaking chiaroscuro; richly detailed, textural, evocative combinations of grey and black, which complements the stark philosophic themes; the crucial use of repetition; the perfectly judged score, empathetic but detached, expressing pity and regret but also consequence; the musical structure (movements, thematic variations, a bridge and a coda); the punishing wind; the heaviness of existence; the impending apocalypse; the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, particularly the latter’s "The Potato Eaters"; the feral side of human nature; the conviction to eschew mainstream demands for easy-to-digest, easy-to-dismiss crowd-pleasers; compassion and empathy; the notion of shared culpability; the responsibility of creating relevant art; the neighbour’s rant about centuries of unabated plunder; the perpetual subjugation of the disenfranchised by the powerful; the gypsies and the well; the rich who never pay; the poor who bear the burden; the anti-bible; the withdrawal of God; the realisation that despair is everywhere; preferring to die at home; the well running dry; the failure of the lamp; the failure of systems and technology; global economic collapse; losing the motivation to eat, speak, or look each other in the eye; an urgent plea; the immutable despair; the dimming of the light; and ultimately fading to black. 


If, as Béla Tarr has announced, this will be his last film, then he ends his filmmaking career on a very high note indeed. The Turin Horse is his most personal and unequivocal work. It is also one of his most beautiful films, an absolute pleasure to watch, listen to, and savour.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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