The Turin Horse
The Turin Horse is reputedly Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s final film, and he has certainly gone out with a memorable feature, with your reaction to the film entirely depending on your attitude and tastes in cinema in general. A film constructed masterfully, it will most definitely be too trying for many cinema attendees. Only last month, when criticising the slightly indulgent length of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, I claimed he metaphorically had a “few too many bland potatoes on the side”. Little did I know that The Turin Horse would give us many, quite literal, bland potatoes as the main course.
This is both a criticism and, well, not praise perhaps but certainly not a reason to disregard the film. As the film begins we are given the tale of Friedrich Nietzsche, as he began to lose his mind, embracing a horse being mistreated by a cab driver. Whilst we know the fate of Nietzsche, the narrator says we do not know the fate of the horse. What follows is a 146-ish minute portrait, consisting of only 30 shots, of the life of the cab driver and his adult daughter in their remote farm house location, including the horse. Exquisitely shot, we see the pair get dressed, fetch well-water, try to coax the stubborn horse to eat, drink or move and eat boiled potatoes. To say much else happens, at least on a literal level, would be a bare-faced lie, what delight there is in the film is purely visual or thematic, rather than anything like a conventional narrative.
…what delight there is in the film is purely visual or thematic…
The opening shot, following the horse as it toils down a country path with the cab and driver in tow, is an arresting sequence and one of the finest steadicam shots I have ever seen. Somehow, through just camera movement, the horse almost appears beast-like as the camera cowers beneath its impressive frame before then seeming strained and weary as it struggles down the path. Sadly, for me, that was the highlight of the film. Whilst there is an undeniable beauty in the 29 other shots, none seemed to possess the same grip over the senses – but that is rather the point.
The opening shot [...] is an arresting sequence and one of the finest steadicam shots I have ever seen
The daily routine is the same, with two notable interruptions from visitors, but Tarr takes the same procedure and shows it from different angles or positions. Although this sounds mundane, it’s almost as if Tarr is grasping to show that variety has be found in the repetition of every day life. Even as we do the same things, we find every day is different, hammering home the fact that these individuals are simply repeating the same dreary routine as they are trapped by a whirling and possibly apocalyptic storm outdoors – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Every single frame of The Turin Horse, shot with Tarr regular Fred Kelemen on cinematography, could happily take its place in a wonderful photography exhibition. The question is whether you are prepared to watch those images move for over 2 hours, largely doing very little.
This is my first experience of Tarr’s work, and whilst I now fully intend to sample more of it off the back of The Turin Horse I get the feeling I’ll need to psych myself up to do so. Anybody who questions cinema as art should be made to watch The Turin Horse. Whether you like it or not, there is simply no other way to describe Tarr’s final film.