A Breath of Fresh Air By Michael Ranze

in 22nd Warsaw International Film Festival

by Michael Ranze

The winner of the FIPRESCI-Prize at this year’s film festival of Warsaw, one of the most important film festivals for young East European directors, was Fresh Air (Friss levegö), the first feature film of the Hungarian director Ágnes Kocsis, born in 1971 in Budapest. The jury admired its unique ideas, elaborate style and quiet humor, not forgetting the earnest study of a lonely woman and her troubled relationship with her teenaged daughter.

It begins with a dance evening of the Lost and Found Hearts club. Viola (Julia Nyako), a quiet, somewhat melancholic woman in her early forties, is dancing with several men — without even speaking or looking at them. From the first images we get to know how lonesome and desperate she is. “I’m not alone”, she says in an ironic contradiction to what we have seen. Her last cavalier had accompanied her home, hoping to come up with her. But Viola has a daughter, Angela (Izabella Hegyi), who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Together they live in a very tidy flat with a retro touch, of the sixties maybe: red telephone, red curtains, red couch. Mother and daughter hardly speak to each other. The communication is reduced to a minimum. Only their favourite television series — the Italian “La piovra” (with Michele Placido) which was very famous and successful in Italy and Germany in the early eighties — unites them on the sofa. And now the film introduces another topic: cleanliness, even pureness. Viola works as a cleaner of a subway toilet. Mostly she sits reading in her small booth between the lady and the gents room, waiting for a few coins from the customers. One of her eccentric rituals consists of filling the air with a room spray, each time a different perfume. She cannot avoid the smell — so she has to fight against it. In one striking scene at the end of the film the spectator sees all the different odours she uses. This woman is really a neat-freak.

Another scene reminded me of Louis Malle’s Atlantic City whenSusan Sarandon cleans her armpits with lemon peels as a normal deodorant — but to an extent that is really embarrassing if not uneasy. Kocsis and her co-scripter Andrea Roberti concentrate on this strange ritual which has become a surrogate for her denials. The camera observes them in long and static sequences which make Fresh Air very absorbing and haunting.

The actors, especially Julia Nyako, support these intentions with a deadpan performance in the manner of the characters in the films of Aki Kaurismäki. That also means that the film is not so depressing as one might suppose. In one amusing scene, Angela is trying to hitchhike from Budapest to Rome. At the border she hops into the car of an Italian couple. “Roma” says the identification mark. But the couple is not going to Rome but to Budapest. And so they drop Angela, who has fallen asleep in the car, just where she started from.

In the end she takes the place of her mother who has been — in a somewhat not very believable robbery, a minor flaw of this film — badly wounded. The camera draws back from her, very slowly, while she is sitting in the small booth. Mother and daughter are not so different after all.