By Kierran Horner.
Over a black screen, sub-titles translate a raised voice; “Open up. Police”, repeated, cut, and a camera sits on someone’s shoulder as they open a door to reveal the sneering, lupine mug of a man with, what seems to be, cranial-mange, surrounded by other assorted, skin-headed aggressors. Not police. They ask after our titular heroine, and only then does the title appear, no credits, just the name. Thus, Peter Strickland laces the genre tropes of the thriller around his film and hooks them onto his unmet protagonist’s story, in particular. Instantly, expectations are courted for a certain narrative course.
It is to the acclaim of Strickland, in his first film to find the closure of completion and release (he has mentioned several abandoned shorts), that although he does present various thriller clichés – the woman on the run, pursued by a malevolent, dark, abstract gang, and her secret, unrevealed for much of the first half of the film – he creates a metaphysical plane for his characters too. Or, at least, the eponymous Katalin.
After the allusive opening scene, or semi-scene, the camera meanders along the rough-stoned inner wall of a derelict building, focusing on the near-beatific, sun-speared, bucolic scenery beyond a paneless window frame. The juxtaposition of these two scenes exemplify Strickland’s dual verse here; a coalescence of the propulsive functionality of a generic narrative and the profound philosophical interpretation of Katalin’s psyche and (wo)mankind’s affinity with nature (without the dubious gender-ascribed-silliness of von Trier).
A simplistic, yet acute, visual style when filming the lives of the inhabitants of the Romanian village where Katalin resides ensures an economic introduction to the main characters and the traditional, archaic values which have kept Katalin’s secret repressed. However, her husband discovers it, her former ‘indiscretion’, and banishes her from the village as “a whore”. And, so begins the road-trip taken by Katalin and her “bastard” son, Orbán, nourished by revenge.
Even outside the village we remain in a temporal limbo, a retro-hinterland where Orbán is playing in fields and once-regal, limestone buildings now reclaimed by nature, before his mother collects him. The pair travel by horse and cart, Strickland evoking transience by focussing on the cart’s wheels and horse’s hooves progressing forward, away from the draconian, regressive village, and a sudden cut expels us from this old world into one of high-rises, cars and ubiquitous mobile-phones attached to the ears of those with nothing to say.
Yet, it is the layering over the rustic gorgeousity of the rural scenes with an incongruous and haunting electro soundtrack, inveigling its synthetic notes into the ruptures between Katalin and her surrounds, (ruptures caused, one assumes, by the trauma of her past), which adds a layer of ominous foreboding to events. Although much else about the film is brilliant, and Hilda Peter’s performance as Katalin needs especial mention, it is the soundtrack, or sound-scape, which emotes transcendental meaning here.
It is a commingling of non-diegetic and diegetic sound, to a point just before they seem to exchange aural planes, such as the oft repeated whistling and cymbals on the soundtrack mixed at the same level as the bleats and bell-jingles of onscreen animals. It is the extra-diegetic music that creates a barrier between Katalin and her previous self who, one assumes, had a natural connection with her environment, which was splintered by her rape.
This is as much a story that, following Katalin and Orbán from farm to farm, where they bed down under hospitable barn-roofs, focuses on the redemption of Katalin through her reconnection with nature that was once intrinsic to her, as much as her bestial, murderous revenge on her adversaries.
After Katalin locates one of her attackers, Gergely, seduces him into a decrepit alleyway, and batters him to death with a brick, it is in a montage of flurried, blurred visual flashes of the fire burning behind them, her arms and hands thrashing downward and primeval grunts. The heated reds of passion, anger and bloody murder are quenched by a cut to an effusive river, bordered by lush undergrowth, ferns, thicket, a light rain dappling the deep-green foliage, in which Katalin attempts to conceal the erstwhile plunderer’s cadaver. It is the proximity of these two stratums, the attempt at reconciliation with nature and the sanguine resistance to it, which is the impetus of Katalin’s journey.
Cinematographer Márk Györi’s camera mirrors this conflict with primarily classical compositions; elegant, steady tracking shots tracing pastoral horizons for example. Yet these are interspersed with out-of-focus, sometimes giddy, close-ups, nearly avant-garde in their fleeting ambiguity, which creates the sense of a rustic harmony threatened by dread and apprehension, like, say, Dumont’s L’humanité (1999). The primary example herein is the repeated “dolly zoom”, that focuses into a forest, into which Katalin stares, transfixed, an escalating near-screeching crackle on the soundtrack. The woods are a place of memory and fear, which attempt to entice her into their dark heart, yet leave her catatonic on its edge.
The pre-title scene returns 45 minutes into the narrative instigating sequences that are more prosaic. The poeticism of the scenes of mother and son travelling through the countryside is not diminished, but is now punctured by menacing shots of car-headlights tracking through the night; a hunter stalking prey (Strickland cites Night of the Hunter as a reference point). Still present too are the lyrical, expressionist(ic) shots such as that of sun-flecked streaming water, filmed through swaying reeds, slowly coming into focus, which reminded me of Wajda’s Sweet Rush (2009).
The element of water is predominant throughout, there is a near constant flow of rain, but it is later, after Katalin has been invited to stay on the farm of Antal and his wife Etelka, that its presence is vital. Between Antal and Katalin there is a connection beyond that of a random Samaritan act between strangers – she is wary of, whilst concurrently attracted to him. The three adults take a trip on a small boat down a river where Katalin relays the story of her abduction and rape in a copse in a forest. She is a composed centre, in medium-shot, whilst the lapping river splashes about them and the scenery behind her head, grey-brown water and thick green woods, spins and whirls as the boat bobs and weaves on the current. As she describes, in gynaecological detail, the pain and her anesthetised emotions, the background whirls, intercut with shots of Antal and Etelka it becomes apparent that Antal was her assailant; she is near redemption.
There is an inelegant bum note struck as Strickland positions the above scene directly after a monologue of Etelka’s praising Antal as a perfect husband. Yet the magnificence of Peter and the metaphorical, esoteric catharsis revive the sequence. Katalin continues, describing how rain fell once her attackers had gone, as she weaves a folk-ballad fantasy of the corporeal realities of the violation and the woodland-habitués covering her with twigs and leaves, pierced through with her certainty that Jesus was sacrificed for her attacker’s sins.
When the pugnacious hunters finally track Katalin down in the final scenes, tellingly, in the thick, lush undergrowth of the forest, they quote to her the fifth commandment, justifying their pursuit and imminent revenge for the murder of Gergely, before battering her to death. (Which begs the question why there was never a “thou shalt not rape”, on which Katalin could have relied, instead of resorting to this violence, in an attempt to find peace.)
The final scene is a repeated shot of Katalin and Orbán sat stationary in their cart transfixed by rolling hills and dense woodland beyond – calm. The suggestion is that Katalin has found her peace with nature, possibly.
For a film shot in the languages, and deeply rooted in the traditions, of Romania and Hungary Katalin Varga has more obvious antecedents from the latter rather than the former. With its metaphysical depth begat from setting characters in psychological turmoil within grandiose, imposing and beautiful landscapes it can think of Miklós Janscó, especially of the mid-‘60’s, as a great uncle and, with its foreboding environment and thematic similarities, Kornel Mundruczo’s Delta (2008) could be a cousin. However, Katalin Vargabelongs to a different family to the films of the recent Romanian renaissance, such as Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Three Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Instead it is closer to Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (2008), with its thriller façade enveloping its personal core, or Reha Erdem’s lusciously ponderous Times and Winds (2006), or even, when Antal is filmed through the slats of a barn wall hurrying through a field, like a photo-biological study of “man” by Muybridge.
Kierran Horner lives in London where he works and writes and previously studied English Literature as an undergraduate, and, as a postgraduate, Film Studies both at the University of London.