Almanac of Fall, 1984

Almanac of Fall opens to a bleak and resigned passage from Aleksandr Pushkin: “Even if you kill me, I see no trace, this land is unknown, the devil is probably leading, going round and round in circles.” In a large, austere, and impersonal apartment, a middle-aged woman named Hédi (Hédi Temessy) recounts with detached acceptance the inevitable realization of an ill-fated relationship, as a dour and attentive man (Miklós Székely B.) listens on, consumed by thoughts of a similar dilemma in his own life. Later, alone in another room within Hedi’s apartment, he listens to his lover, Hedi’s nurse Anna (Erika Bodnár), remark with distracted and polite affection that she has always led an independent and unattached life. Perhaps subconsciously, Anna prefers to be unburdened by the responsibility of material possessions, but nevertheless is intrigued by the idea of performing the mundane rituals associated with leading a “normal” life. Yet even in her fanciful illusion of home and sense of normalcy, there seems little room in her ideal life for her insecure and emotionally dependent lover, even as he vacuously declares his innate need to be with her. This seemingly hopeless and insincere display of alienated affection will again resurface in another room of the apartment when Hédi has an emotionally violent quarrel with her irresponsible and resentful son (János Dezsi) who has returned home in need of money to squander on alcohol. Consumed with envy and self-loathing, her son defiantly declares his hopes for her death and threatens harm in order to get his way. Their relationship is further strained by his decision to allow a financially struggling teacher named Tibor to occupy a spare room without obtaining prior approval from Hédi, a living arrangement that becomes increasingly complicated when the lodger resorts to theft to settle his debts. Meanwhile, Anna attempts to gain solidarity from Hédi’s desperate son by commenting on his mother’s cruel nature, remarking “She is the happiest when you are desperate…She does it with all of us”, even as she feigns compassion for the emotionally distraught Hédi. However, as the wanton and aimless residents perform their destructive pattern of alliances, betrayals, and violence, the apartment becomes an oppressive and dehumanizing dystopia of frustrated ambition, repression, isolation, and emotional cruelty.

Béla Tarr creates a visually sublime and provocative film on emotional cruelty, alienation, and moral bankruptcy in Almanac of Fall. Evoking the dramatic tension of August Strindberg’s plays and the intensity of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber works, Tarr uses highly stylized, artificially colored lighting, rigorous (and deliberate) formalism, minimalist setting, and protracted dialogue to create an atmospherically charged and disquieting environment. The film’s pervasive sense of unnaturality and forced intimacy reflects the hermetic, violative, and inbred nature of the occupants’ inhumanity and moral decay: the rampant duplicity and betrayal among the apartment residents; the intrusiveness of the unusual camera angles (Tibor’s shave and subsequent attack); the unspoken and concealed acts of aggression perpetrated within the household (Hédi’s physical confrontation with her son, and later, with Anna; Tibor’s attack; Anna’s rape). Inevitably, as the disingenuous and self-consumed occupants of the insular apartment alternately vie for Hédi’s trust, allegiance, and control, what emerges is a haunting image of lost and aimless spirits, like the pallid, unreconciled ghosts of dramatic tragedies, drifting round and round in circles through the empty, soulless rooms of their stifling and claustrophobic corporeality.

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