Voluptuous Carbohydrates and Apocalyptic Ecstasy

in 23rd Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Nathan Lee

Let’s talk about the potatoes. Among the daily drudgeries repeated throughout “The Turin Horse”, the latest (and reportedly last) film directed by Béla Tarr, the preparation and eating of boiled potatoes has become something of a signature – and a punch line. “The Turin Horse”: “a movie where miserable people eat potatoes for three hours,” just as people once talked of “the Romanian abortion movie.” It has even been speculated that a festival trailer for the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, in which two sad, dusty men eternally peel potatoes while questioning the appeal of dour art films, may be friendly jab at Tarr’s expense.

A film of ecstatic severity and implacable stubbornness, “The Turin Horse” is serious business indeed, though I wouldn’t put a glimmer of humor past Tarr, whose introductions to the film at various festival have evinced a dry sense of humor concerning his latest cine-ordeal. The joke, if there is one, is as attenuated as the scenario depicted in “The Turin Horse”: six days in the life of a dust-blasted wasteland inhabited by an elderly man, his daughter, a moody horse, and the desolate shack that isolates them from what increasingly comes to feel like the end of the world. They dress and undress, check the well and attend to the stove, stare out the window and collapse into bed. And they eat. Sort of. Each day the daughter boils a pair of potatoes, to be served alone on a plate, garnished with table salt, picked apart with bare fingers, and consumed with an affectless sense of duty. This is what we have. This is what we do. Complaint is as foreign to the world of “The Turin Horse” as succulent proteins. Once, a neighbor stops by to borrow some drink and expound a pessimistic philosophical diatribe. Once, a band of gypsies arrives, mischievous and taunting, and then depart. All else is ritual and repetition, punishingly Spartan.

The potato is an axiomatic food, signifier of the bare minimum, sustenance just past the threshold of starvation: one step above eating nothing is to eat a potato. Everything in “The Turin Horse” – plot, setting, characterization, interiority – has been reduced to such essentials More than some miserablist trope, then, the stark reduction of the potato motif operates as one element within a set of principled choices, a cleansing of the film’s symbolic syntax. “The Turin Horse” demonstrates brute existential fact, approaching a degree zero absolute of bodies and space, darkness and light, shelter and the elements, stuff and spirit. Tarr’s singular maneuver is to fuse these deprivations to a style of voluptuous expressive value. Exquisitely complex traveling shots expand and contract through space, mining every square centimeter of shadow, every nuance of texture, each lethargic gesture for maximum visual interest. The potatoes may be tasteless, but they’re great eye candy, billowing silver clouds of steam against the dense charcoal blacks of the kitchen.

The potato ritual, six times repeated with increasingly diminished appetite, further serves to mark a carefully modulated structure of difference and repetition. “The Turin Horse” monumentalizes the quotidian as both a rapturously observed object (surface and mise-en-scène) and archetypal form (rhythm and montage). Underscored by the droning motifs of composer Mihály Vig, the repetition of acts, chores, and rituals fix us to a pattern of nearly cosmic affect. The grandeur remains – heightens, even – as this particular universe begins to slide toward some unnamable chaos. The clarity of Tarr’s project permits hyper-awareness of divergence from routine; with each passing day, slight adjustments take on the impact of a planet tipping from its orbit. In its ability to invest the spectator in the strictest of scenarios while attuning them to the slightest variations of gesture and form, “The Turin Horse” plays like “Jeanne Dielman” as adapted by Cormac McCarthy.