Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gloomy Sunday: A Review

There is one camera shot that stands out in "Gloomy Sunday," a movie about the famous "Hungarian Suicide Song," above all the others. It occurs when Andras, the young pianist, is playing his composition “Gloomy Sunday” for the first time in Lazlo’s café in 1930's Budapest, Hungary.

The camera tracks around the room, showing the moment that the music resonates with the individuals in the room. It is as if the camera itself is the strain of melancholy music being lifted around the room, and as the camera’s gaze sets upon each person, so too do the notes of “Gloomy Sunday.” The camera finally ends upon the form of Ilona, Andras’s muse who is in turn ensnared by the song and its composer as well.

The film work in the movie is superb. However, the other shots, as well conceived as they are, have quite a different purpose to them. The movie is billed as the story of a love triangle. Truth be told, there are actually four players, three men revolving around Ilona, one of which enters and departs the film on several occasions. On a cinematic level, we must add another player to the equation - the camera, and the specifically male-gendered gaze that it represents.

Whether it is the camera lingering on Ilona’s dress, or her topless form in a bathtub, or even centering on her face when she is enjoying the company of her two boyfriends, the gaze is obviously male. The viewer is meant to be struck by Ilona just as much as the male characters in the film, and truly, she, and not the song written for her, is the center of the film. In fact, when the camera and the plot strays from the love triangle, for example to the effects of the song, the movie suffers as if its losing direction.

Fortunately for the viewer, the actress playing Ilona is perhaps the most gorgeous woman that mainstream American theater-goers have never seen. Erika Maroszan is ever in the center of the camera shot, in a variety of different dresses and states of dress. The colors in the film are also well choreographed the mostly drab and pastels bringing contrast to the brilliant dresses that Ilona dons. Her capabilities as an actress are substantial, and in addition to her beauty captivating the audience, she does so with her dialogue and acting as well.

Were the scopophilic gaze of the camera to settle on a lesser talented and beautiful actress, the movie would not be nearly as successful. As the film is a romantic one, the gaze serves to draw the viewer to Ilona just as all the other male character in the film are. Her attractiveness is made unquestionable.

However, as the gaze is ever being put on her, objectifying and even deifying her, rarely do Ilona's actions appear to exert any willful control over the direction of the camera, and consequently the plot, and as such, her characterization does suffer.

The film is notably indecisive in conveying the strength of her character, and while it does well in painting her as a sympathetic character, the same action disempowers her.

Never does she act the seductress or siren, luring men to their demise; rather that is the role of the song “Gloomy Sunday” (although this dichotomy does collide later in the film, as the viewer will see). Thus, when she is at the center of the love triangle, it is entirely believable that she truly cares about the two men involved with her, even as she comes to realize that the balance is tenuous at best. The movie in fact seems to indicate that Ilona is aware of the potential ruin her own voice can cause, as she professes to Andras that although trained, she "only sings when she is alone."

The cost her Ilona never being a siren, for it is depicted as a binary, the silent Ilona and the siren Ilona, is that she often appears almost passive, the flame that dances while moths draw towards it. Her agency as a character, her motivation, is sometimes unclear, or at least just left to the idea that she loves both men deeply. This agency is in fact enough to carry the film about two-thirds of the way.

Unfortunately, this falls apart in the last third of the film, which is precisely when Ilona’s character should be most expressive, and due to technological constraints (and possibly a directorial choice as well), we cannot even see Ilona’s face during the last scene of the movie. And during this last scene, the cost of not establishing the true strength of Ilona’s character over the majority of the film is clear, as her last action is quite jarring, although it paints her in a “strong” light.

All told, “Gloomy Sunday” should be considered a cinematic masterpiece; not only does it skillfully navigate concepts of suicide and love, but it does so in the setting of WWII Nazi-occupied Europe without being ham-fisted, and it manages to build a very solid movie around a piece of music, something that other movies (in a related manner, for example, “The Red Violin”) tend to fail at.

It may not be Casablanca (and there are several obvious homages to Casablanca), but it is definitely worth viewing, and I am surprised, from both the quality of the film and the apparent production budget, that it did not receive more attention here in the United States. But the rapid revelations during the last five minutes of the movie, as well as the ambiguity of Ilona’s character in the third act, does detract somewhat from the overall quality of the film.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A most insightful review. Striking in this movie, beside its cinmatographic qualities, is its genuine cultural translation onto the screen of Mitteleuropa, Hungary and Budapest.

This movie is not perfect; neither is Mitteleuropa. The viewer who knows Budapest and the Hungarian and German cultures well cannot but be touched deeply by it. Foremost the genuine beauty and strength, combined with frailty, of the female protagonist. Ilona exists although her real name might be Ildikó. So does the consuming passion leading to despair. The nostalgia and the tragedy are real and palpable when you walk the streets of Budapest today.

This movie is, furthermore, impressive in its translation of the clash -- despite their real affinity -- of the German and Hungarian cultures. The apparent physical domination by Germany is just that -- physical and merely apparent.

The German culture and Hungarian cultures have many affinities. They are not easily accessible to outsiders, hence are not well known nowadays and are easily overshadowed by noisier cultures. Their relationship is bipolar, which also happens to be the name of a government-sponsored program to rekindle the cultural links between both countries.

Hungary and Germany have another similarity -- they do not sell their cultural qualities well. It might just explain why this jewel of a movie has not enjoyed more international exposure.

JK Oversteyns

6:42 AM  

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