2010s, Drama, French cinema, German cinema, Hungarian cinema, Scifi

Womb (2010)



Director/Screenwriter: Benedek Fliegauf

By Roderick Heath

Films that use the ideas of the science fiction genre to genuinely serious investigatory or poetic ends are pretty few and far between in today’s cinema. If they are taking those ideas seriously at all, it’s more likely to be on a conceptual, rather than psychological or emotional plane. A coldly beautiful and quietly dazzling exercise in psychosexual provocation, as well as a meditation on mortality and personality with a blend of genre with high Freudian perversity, Womb easily bests the last mainstream film to tackle the moral and humanitarian ramifications of cloning, 2010’s unfocused and soapy Never Let Me Go, for narrative power and coherence. Fleigauf’s film expands its ideas with genuinely unsettling and affecting permutations that retain a touch of the otherworldly and yet also proceeds with a chilly, peculiar logic.


Womb has gained little attention, though not too surprisingly, as it’s inevitably noncommercial; I only came across it by chance, dumped onto DVD, in spite of sporting two excellent young stars: Eva Green, an actress who embodies something intelligent yet provocative and insinuatingly decadent even in the most humdrum of parts, and the rubbery-limbed Matt Smith, currently inhabiting the role of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s been a good year for dumped Green films, also including the lesser but still interesting Cracks.


At the outset of Fleigauf’s film, Green is a solitary woman sitting on the balcony of her remote house, perched on stilts in the midst of a tidal plain, cradling a belly bulging with pregnancy, thanking, in voiceover, someone for this gift. Fliegauf then jumps back many years in the past to when Green’s character, Rebecca, was nine years old (played at that age by Ruby O. Fee), and staying for a vacation with her grandfather. She encountered a boy, Thomas (Tristan Christopher), when he took a break from being chased about by local hooligans to say hello, and they swiftly became inseparable friends, with Rebecca practically absorbed by Thomas’ parents, Ralph and Judith (Mike Leigh regulars Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), into their family. The two children spent an idyllic vacation in spite of the typically northern European, tempestuous, and glowering atmosphere of the seaside locale, with its pebbly beaches and beautifully blasted shores and sands, until Rebecca finally had to leave to join her mother who was taking a job in Tokyo. The night before she leaves, Tom announces he’s going to see her off and give her a going-away present, but he never shows up.


Rebecca returns over a decade later, having gained a degree and a profession as a designer of software for acoustic devices, to take over her since-deceased grandfather’s house and to look for Tom. When she finds him, he’s grown into the agreeable adult form of Smith. When Rebecca finds his current abode, still in the same seaside town that he loves too much to leave, she finds Rose (Natalia Tena) sitting on the floor in her undies, reading a book. But she’s just a casual pick-up, and she gets frustrated and stomps out when faced with Rebecca and Tom’s instantaneously resumed mutual fascination: “Maybe you two should start sniffing each other.” Tom gives Rebecca the present she was supposed to receive, a matchbox containing a snail, now long dead.


Tom, who is now a biology student and an activist, is planning a demonstration at a new cloning centre called Sparkling Park, and has a crate full of cockroaches ready to release to cause alarm amongst the security staff. Rebecca joins him for this jaunt, but when she gets him to pull his car over so she can go take a pee in the grass, and he starts to get out after her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of another car hitting him at speed. Fleigauf and Green pull off this scene with terrific dispassion and a proper sense of the jarring shock of sudden, complete, irretrievable loss registered in the ever so slightly widening eyes of Rebecca as she surveys Tom’s broken body. Except that it’s not irretrievable, not anymore. As Tom’s parents grieve, Rebecca retains her sphinx-like smile, and presents them with a solution: that they clone Tom, and she will act his surrogate mother. Judith rejects the notion, stating that, “We’re atheists…but that doesn’t mean we can rummage in our deceased’s grave…we are not farm animals…we accept what life gives us!” Rebecca presses ahead, however, going to Sparkling Park, where Rose, who works there, catches sight of her. Months later, Rebecca gives birth to Tom redux, and begins to raise him as her own son.


What end such an act can possibly have, and all its manifold and troubling imputations, looms with constant tension throughout Womb, as Fleigauf describes young Tommy’s growth from bulge in Rebecca’s belly to upright young man. Whether Rebecca can continue to treat Tommy as simply her own child who happens to also be giving the genetic material of her great love a second chance at life, or if she’s nursing a darker, if still possibly inchoate, plan to make him a substitute, and what his reaction to the inevitable, practically Greek tragic moment of realisation will be is the crucial question, one that hovers as not entirely resolved until the very end.


In the meantime, Rebecca keeps the truth of Tommy’s origins from him, and when he has an encounter with another cloned youngster, Dima (Gina Stiebitz), he learns of the intense social hatred toward clones. Other concerned mothers, worried when Rebecca invites Dima unknowingly to Tommy’s birthday party, meet with her and explain, in a note-perfect transposition of such anxieties from more familiar worrisome types, how they don’t want their children exposed to the unknown influence of these strange, unnatural entities. But word soon reaches the parents of Tommy’s friends about his genetic origins, thanks to Rose, and when Tommy asks Rebecca why nobody came to his party, Rebecca only says, “Because they’re stupid!” The next day she packs up and moves them both out to the remote house glimpsed at the beginning, where Rebecca continues to live until Tommy is grown, burgeoning into a man eerily similar to his earlier incarnation, with a deep interest in nature and a loopy sense of childish fun. When he moves a girlfriend from college, Monica (Hannah Murray), into the house, the stage is set for possibly the strangest ménage-a-trois, seething beneath the surface and constantly sensed by all parties without quite taking shape, in cinema history.


Fliegauf maintains a tremendous formal control over Womb, which could easily have toppled into torpid psychodrama or arty sterility. His film bears a distinct resemblance, in setting as well as style and the chilly anthropological deconstruction, to the early work of Roman Polanski. Shot in the Sylt region in Germany, near the Danish border, with its many gradations in hazy beauty, the setting presents a perfect barometer for the oedipal drama unfolding with the mood of increasing isolation from the real world. As far as films that use natural settings to define and dominate the mood of a film, Womb stands far above just about any work of recent cinema, except maybe Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).


The womb of the title is both Rebecca’s physical womb, of course, cradle and battlefield of this experiment in human intransigence and longing, but also the house into which she moves to continue her experiment in peace. Fliegauf pieces together telling detail as he effectively describes a warped family situation with cues, usually subliminal and yet constantly accumulating, occasionally to overflowing, as when Rebecca offers herself to a barely adolescent Tommy in a fashion he doesn’t at all understand. Simultaneously, there’s a distinct echo of biblical myth in the very Garden of Eden where the second-generation man Cain must marry his mother Eve as a precursor to new life: Rebecca retreats into her own little Eden. Images of mother and infant bearing distinct similarities to those seen in The Tree of Life (2011) flow by, except whereas there is mystery in familiar human growth—no one’s ever quite sure what a child will look like as it grows—here there is a chilly, preordained sense of how Tommy is going to grow up, what he’ll think, feel, what he’ll be excited by—and what he’ll be turned on by.


There’s a particularly keen condensation of parental affection, childish destructiveness, and unspoken suspicion in a movement in which Rebecca gives Tommy a toy robotic dinosaur, as cruelly adorable as possible, which Tommy along with a boy he befriends then buries in the sand: it’s the sort of thing a boy his age does to toys, an act that’s usually thoughtless but that parents can feel is somehow a rejection of them, and imbued here with another layer as Tommy acts out a detestation of simulacrums. Fliegauf relies on the audience blanching at a lifelike thing being treated in such a fashion, aware that Tommy himself would be considered such a thing, requiring Rebecca’s retreat to the edge of the earth to pillow him from that treatment. “Dima is the victim of artificial incest!” one of the village mothers says in a key, wryly amusing, yet highly discomforting scene: “Her mother gave birth to her own mother!” The ground seems set for another portrayal of small-mindedness and reactionary impulses through a gimmicky prism, but Fliegauf loads the situation thanks to the awareness that Rebecca’s intentions for her own clone are not entirely wholesome. Rebecca, sensing the danger of being caught outside the herd, immediately acquiesces and plays along. Where exactly all the ethics review panels went to in this brave new world isn’t stated, but it’s clear the act of cloning has already been commercialised out of sight, as one of the reasons Tom was protesting the cloning centre was its plan to make most of its money out of “cyberbitches”, cloned prostitutes, and endlessly reproduced household pets.


At the outset, Womb seems cast in the mould of something like Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1999) in portraying Rebecca and Tom’s intense connection as something almost sublime and preordained, and Tom’s quirky energy seems quite in line with that familiar variety of lively young man. Smith, however, has a gift for suggesting something slightly alien and asocial in his characters as well as charming and zany. When Rebecca walks back into Tom’s life after years, she doesn’t even need to say her name for him to recognise her, and soon they’re so fixated on each other that they completely ignore anyone else in their world. Their initial reuniting is painfully brief, so Rebecca seems to hope that this innate bond will be sustained as Tommy grows into a man. Yet, for the most part, she plays the almost-perfect mother, with a job that allows her to work from home and continue constant interaction; when Tommy’s grown, she tiptoes into his bedroom to lay down a breakfast tray for him and Monica, whom she’s never met. Monica’s arrival starts a breakdown in Rebecca’s equilibrium: she’s lived without any kind of sexual contact all these years—it’s revealed in the most alarming fashion possible that she’s still a virgin—and her still-manifest physical desire for Tommy, and, it becomes increasingly clear in spite of all his presuppositions, his for her, begins to boil over.


Incest seems to be emerging as a new subject for would-be provocateurs in the artier cinema brackets, whilst films that try to describe and encompass the repetitive chains of birth, growth, and creation that govern human life seem to reflect a current wave in the zeitgeist: some of the year’s other top films, include The Tree of Life, Hanna, Attenberg, and Mysteries of Lisbon, all present some consistent thematic concerns with this developmental theme, as children become products of, and vessels for, the ambitions and mistakes of their parents. Rarely has the most profound taboo been approached with such supple, nerveless skill as in this film, whilst the theme is carefully leavened by the story frame: there is awareness that Tommy is not a natural son as it would once have been defined, and yet he’s bound to Rebecca in the most intimate way as a product of her body, if not of her genes. Whether Tommy retains an actual bond with Rebecca that transcends the liminal, or whether he’s just responding to endless subtle signals in her manner over the years, is impossible to discern; nor, is it easy to tease apart the specific ramifications of the situation it presents, with their scifi impetus, from any normal mother’s relationship with a grown son who in some ways personifies her husband grown young again. In any event, Womb is a film infused with a sonorous cool and an emotional intensity that builds to an inevitable outburst, which comes when his other mother, Judith, turns up at the house, looking like a gorgon of gnawed conscience, not speaking a word as she partakes of this remake of her son and reels away with profound and baleful knowledge.


This episode lodges a fresh disquiet in Tommy which Smith realises as a marvellous climax of actorly slow burn. Tommy, Rebecca, and Monica are at the breakfast table, his final exhaustion with Rebecca’s evasions and estrangement exploding as he slams a clogged salt shaker repeatedly upon the table and turns the kitchen upside down until he procures a handful of salt to smother his meal, before pointing to his mother and saying the fateful words in regards to Judith, “I know her.” Monica’s pathos in trying to plead for her lover to emerge from the bathroom where he locks himself and realising that she’s the superfluous point in this triangle, causes her to flee. At last, Rebecca delivers self-knowledge to Tommy, and he rests for a bleak and terrible moment on an edge of powerful feeling that will resolve either in matricide or sex—either way, a primal taboo. As it happens, sex prevails. Tommy finally ends Rebecca’s virginity and then flees the house, having fulfilled exactly what Rebecca wanted—to have a real child by Tommy—and finally free to find some purpose for himself. The mood seems at last unbearable, except that in the final shot, as Tommy disappears into the murk, Rebecca switches on a light within the house: now, at last, each is only just recommencing life. Womb is a strange, troubling, fascinating waking dream.

1970s, Foreign, Hungarian cinema

Red Psalm (1972)

Még Kér a Nép


Director: Miklós Jancsó

By Roderick Heath

All films are dialectic between cut and shot, edit and vision, duration and severance, but what kind of conversation they might have can be very different to the one we’re used to. Miklós Jancsó helped bring attention to the cinema of his narrative Hungary in the mid 1960s with eye-catching films that emphasised the shot over the edit, his drifting camera absorbing events without the traditional grammar of scene structures and narrative cues. Martin Scorsese’s rule about cinema being what’s in and out of the frame was never more true than in a work in which the frame’s capacity to move, rather than the capacity to move between frames, is celebrated. Red Psalm, which gained Jancsó a Best Director prize at Cannes, represented an extreme version of his efforts: consisting of only 26 separate shots, it drinks in physical context, unity of drama, and community action in a fashion that’s utterly radical and strange, and yet, in the way it plays out, hypnotically natural and fluid. Red Psalm never stops moving—it simply moves in a different fashion to most films.


Red Psalm, the original Hungarian title of which means “And the People Still Ask,” is often described as a musical, and there’s some truth to that, though not in the style the phrase usually suggests. In spite of the long takes, it’s not one of those passive-aggressive films full of intolerable static patches; rather it’s defined by constant, restless motion and activity. It’s a work that wouldn’t and didn’t upset Hungary’s Warsaw Pact government of the time, and yet it’s more than merely a hymn to official socialism past and present; it trafficks in the future, the what-might-be as well as the fait accompli, and to revolutionary traditions domestic and foreign. It’s no mere artistic grovel, but a morally engaged film that tries to articulate the vital moment when the powerless try to create a space in which they have power. Likewise, the English title draws out one aspect of the tapestry texture of the film: there’s an attempt to purify the corrupt, power-serving church and return to a grassroots sense of faith that’s inextricable from the earth and communal identity, a kind of Christianity reconnected to nature worship.


Detailing a fictional, but exemplary situation some time in the 1890s, Red Psalm portrays a collective of peasants attempting to resist all attempts by landowners, police, and finally, the military, to force them to sell their farm produce in the same way they always have, for a fixed (in both senses of the term) price to oligarchic landowners. When the film commences, the collective has already formed and made its declaration, and are waiting by a small chapel for the inevitable pressure that will come from the powers that be. The location is the agricultural flatlands, beautiful and spacious, ripe and giving. The peasants read a letter from Engels to the Hungarian socialists to bolster their stand, whilst haughty, bossy militiamen, cadets, and a bailiff gather to try to intimidate them: a quartet of young officers patronise them, asking if they understood Engels’ letter. The bailiff gives out drinks as a goodwill gesture, but the peasants pour it on the ground. The bailiff reiterates the usual payment in money and wheat for their produce, but one of the militiamen sets fire to the cash and the rest begin to walk away after being taunted by the peasant women, allowing the rest of the collective to grab the bailiff, stuff him in a sack, and drag him away. The peasants are barely differentiated by names or biographies, but some begin to emerge in individuality: one, Balint (József Madaras), maintains a conscientious and calm probity, whilst a woman in a blue dress and headscarf is the most forceful figurehead of the collective’s purpose.


The unifying motif is music, for a band of troubadours keep up a constant stream of tunes and anthems to fire the spirit of the collective and taunt the oppressors back. Jancsó pays sly tribute to Hollywood musicals in the bold costuming of the major female figures and, in places, the way the community interacts evokes images from the likes of Oklahoma!, The Band Wagon, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The mood and method of this musical is, like those films, a blend of high style and naturalism, but essayed in an entirely different fashion. The tunes come entirely from the people on screen, played on location and engaged with in a realistic fashion, with people breaking into dance and song when they feel like it.


As the collective begins to swell in numbers, incorporating, it seems, all the folk from the nearest village, likewise the number of soldiers brought in to threaten them grows. One of the young officers, who has been ordered to kill the leadership of the collective, is instead intrigued, especially by a trio of young women who strip and continue to protest topless. He gives up his revolver to one of his fellow officers, who then casually lets off shots into the collective, wounding one woman in the arm, and then shooting dead his wayward fellow. But he revives when a peasant maid gives him a kiss, a fairytale inversion of the Sleeping Beauty plot. The wounded girl’s injury transforms from blood into a red ribbon. A count comes to speak to them with calm and friendly words, droning on about thriftiness and moral capital, but then spontaneously keels over, stone-cold dead, sparking the outrage of his imperious wife.


It’s not just power and commerce that’s at stake here, but the power of resurrection and annihilation. The countess whips up the soldiers and her servants to herd the peasants into a huddling mass, whilst the priest from the chapel reads out cant. For a moment the collective is contained, but then some of the stronger labourers begin cracking whips, scaring the horses and the priest. Balint tries to restrain assaults on the church, gaining him the disapproval of his fellows: they, listening to the priest’s righteous recital of a letter from the Pope filled with bigotry (“Here are heretics, pagans, Jews, and other denominations, but you my flock did not turn against the guilty, but against the whole of society.”) bundle him away and set his chapel on fire. They then hold a candlelight mass where they pray for such things as “Protect us from widowhood…protect us from immigration…Save us O Lord from starvation…Save us O Lord from the holes in our boots…”


Yet Jancsó also acknowledges the deep roots of faith in the soil and the labours of humans, as his camera passes from a young woman ringing bells for mass to others carrying religious paraphernalia onto a table loaded with the bounty and sustenance of the peasants’ labour, including a loaf of bread that one of the women carries as if it were a holy talisman. Jancsó, whilst playing games with the movie musical tradition, also channels the nature imagery of specific forebears in the Eastern bloc film tradition—Dovzhenko and Paradjanov—but unlike the latter filmmaker, he doesn’t mystify even whilst evoking mysticism. Later, when disavowing use of weapons and the implements of violence, one of the men quotes the Book of Isaiah about beating swords into ploughshares. The line between Christian sacrament and pagan fertility ritual all but disappears as the film progresses. An old man listens with apparent joy to the words of the group, but then cuts his wrist and bleeds to death, and Balint covers him with his shirt: why is an absolute mystery, unless it’s to not have to live past the moment of perfect joy he’s found. One of the militiamen, Janos Nagy (Márk Zala), is inducted into the peasants’ number with a ritualistic fervor as women touch his head with branches as he disowns his evil acts.


Whilst Jancsó pays overt tribute to the social struggles of Hungary—referenced several times in the film are the words of poet Sándor Petőfi, who was executed for involvement in the nationalist uprisings of 1848, the events of which the story evokes—he also encompasses references to the French Revolution, as the group sings their rewritten version of “La Marseillaise,” as well as American labour and social struggles, when the collective’s band plays “Charlie Is My Darling,” a Civil War-era song. It’s very hard, in spite of the historical setting, to avoid thinking of ’60s counterculture protests, especially the 1967 march on the Pentagon, when the young women bare their breasts and advance fearlessly on the soldiers who are momentarily sparked to excitable desertion, running away in a cheering mass after chasing the girls to get an eyeful. Flower power is often on display, and more codified images of spiritual and physical fecundity, too, as when the young women hold fowl to their bosoms and the villagers circle in unified labour to stamp the chaff out of wheat. The whole landscape is charged with richness and also tension, for even the most joyous moments for the collective usually have the ever-massing, encircling soldiers waiting in grey lines around their own ranks. The swaggering CO of a new detachment of troops explicitly mocks the collective as “cowards hiding behind infants,” and a steam train loaded with soldiers noses its way into the hitherto preindustrial landscape. But increasingly large numbers of the soldiers are joining the collective, too.


Finally, the expanded insurrection meets in a huge celebratory mass around a maypole. For a moment, all the soldiers join their celebration, but most are then scared back into formation by their officers and end up gunning down the group. The victorious oligarchs drink a toast, and the young, resurrected officer descends into a river dyed red with the blood of the slaughtered community. The soldiers are blessed by the priest, and the original core members of the collective are lined up to be shot together. One of the troubadours stabs the bailiff in the stomach and defies the bullets of the young officers, which bring him down only slowly as he struggles to finish his song. The remaining members of the group are executed, the nudity of the young women now seeming less redolent of hippie chick freedom than of the nakedness of the gas chamber’s victims. But the woman in the blue dress, now dressed in a red contemporary fashion, pulls a soldier from his saddle, takes his revolver, and begins gunning down the rest of the army, until they’re all sprawled as dead as her comrades.


Jancsó’s success in synthesising a cinematic style that is at once utterly down to earth and unified in both the technical and aesthetic senses, realistic, without a special effect or the fan dance of regular editing styles, and yet highly surreal and charged with magic and possibility, is undeniable. Many directors have attempted in recent years to pepper their films with extended tracking shots with varying degrees of stylistic and thematic intent and success, but they are mostly just showing off. For Jancsó, it’s the best way to describe the world he’s envisioning, one of harmony and structure, group struggle and the endurance of idealism. His film, rather than a film of a dance, is a dance itself. l