"The Investigator": A Classical Detective Story By Peter Keough

in 43rd Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Peter Keough

When the crab starts talking, some viewers might balk at buying into the peculiar charms of Hungarian director Attila Gigor’s debut feature, The Investigator (A nyomozó]. Once that obstacle is passed, however, many perverse delights await. But The Investigator is more than just an outlandishly entertaining black comedy and mystery thriller. It also reworks some of the profounder themes of classical mythology under the auspices of a sometimes farcical genre parody.

The crab appears in one of the earlier reveries of Tibor Malkáv (Zsolt Anger), a hulking, asocial assistant pathologist in a Budapest hospital. He’s a bit creepy, with a little of the Norman Bates about him, and he doesn’t have much of a life. By day he performs autopsies on gruesome bodies, victims whose bizarre fates are depicted in little inserted vignettes in the mode of the TV show Six Feet Under — one of the few derivative touches in this otherwise thoroughly original film. By night he visits his mother, dying of bone marrow cancer in the hospital. She needs an operation to save her life, one Tibor can’t afford.

There are some deviations to this routine. Edit (Judit Rezes), a pretty, kooky waitress at the café Tibor patronizes, hits on him one evening and develops an inexplicable, and largely unrequited, infatuation. Edit gamely persists in her apparent folly even though the closest human contact Tibor seems capable of is tenderly applying make-up to a cadaver’s face.

More ominously, a sinister, sardonic fellow with a gimpy eye calling himself Küklopsz (Cyclops — the allusion to the Odyssey seems intentional), corners Tibor one day and offers him a proposition: if Tibor murders a complete stranger, Cyclops will pay him enough money to take care of his mother. Tibor ponders the offer with the same tortured expression with which he endures all human experience, and accepts.

The deed done, Tibor learns the identity of his victim in the newspaper the next day. He’s an unremarkable person, an inoffensive physicist and a complete stranger. That is, until Tibor receives a letter — from the victim himself.

It’s at this point that Tibor slowly transforms from Norman Bates into RoboCop, his excruciating social awkwardness revealing itself as an invincible sang froid. This is just one of the film’s many arch reversals of genre convention; instead of the ineptitude of the innocent bystander hero of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Tibor responds to the mystery with the ruthless resourcefulness of a Jason Bourne.

That’s one factor distinguishing Gigor’s film from such similar classics as the Patricia Highsmith adaptations The American Friend or Strangers on a Train. Another is the bold use of abrupt, unnerving fantasy sequences mentioned above. In one such scene toward the end of the film, Gigor gleefully plays with the hoary detective story convention in which the investigator gathers all the suspects into a drawing room where he meticulously outlines his case, identifying the guilty party. In Gigor’s version, the suspects themselves work out the solution, explaining the case to the impassive Tibor.

For, like the movie, Tibor has a lot more going on below the surface than one might suspect. Even the formidable Cyclops expresses misgivings about taking on the enigmatic assistant pathologist. Maybe he fears sharing the same fate as his Homeric namesake, who after Odysseus put out his one good eye asked, “Who are you?” Odysseus replied: “No one”.

As in all detective stories worth investigating, the solution to this one involves the mystery of identity itself. Such was certainly the case with that first detective, Oedipus. He also tried to solve a murder and ended up finding out more than he bargained for — the identity of the victim and that of the killer and of himself. This film is kind of like the myth of Oedipus with a happy (sort of) ending. It’s a Greek Comedy, Hungarian style. And it’s very funny, too.