When word first emerged, seemingly shortly after the dawn of the aughts, of a new Bela Tarr project—to be made, as all of his post-Satantango films have been, in such close collaboration with his editor and life partner Agnes Hranitzky that she would be a credited co-auteur—Tarr fans reacted with a mix of bemusement and bated breath. For while prior Tarr films had sometimes had a literary basis—Satantango, for instance, had been adapted from a novel by Hungarian author László Krasznahorka—here Tarr proposed to take on the work of a brilliant but much more internationally mainstream author, Georges Simenon. Simenon, whose precise language and tight plotting make him unique—and uniquely addictive—among mystery writers, has been cinema-fied by no less than the likes of Renoir, Duvivier, Autant-Lara, Chabrol, Marcel Carné, Phil Karlson, Bertrand Tavernier, Patrice Leconte...all distinctive filmmakers, a handful of them very great indeed, and all, when you come right down to it, artists who exist/existed in a world very far removed from the almost obstereperously Eastern European one from which Tarr's mind, heart, eye and ear send their particular dispatches. When word came that fiercely idiosyncratic actress Tilda Swinton was "attached" to the project, speculation became ever more furious. For despite her uncompromising intelligence and devotion to both the craft of acting and to the cinema, Swinton had, by that time, still become something of a "name," an internationally known performer. Her involvement didn't say "sell-out," no, not in a million years; but it did indicate that Tarr might be trying to break out of a particular corner, to make a move that would position him better in the wider world of continental art cinema.
And then the project fell apart. The film's producer, Humbert Balsam (who had gotten his start in the cinema as an actor, or rather as a non-actor, playing Gauvin in Bresson's 1974 Lancelot du Lac; he continued appearing in films, rather sporadically, throughout his career) took his own life in early 2005, leaving the plans for the film in disarray. Balsam was a particularly brave producer, getting behind incredibly challenging projects such as Trier's
Mandalay Manderlay and Denis' L'intrus; and so, he, too, seemed an ideal party to the transition Tarr appeared to be making. Tarr and company were able to pull the threads of the production together in short enough order that the film was able to make its Cannes premiere in May of 2007.
And even as the Cannes press streamed in, there was much to wonder about before the film actually screened. The film festival's catalog claimed that the picture would be in Hungarian and English, and that it would be—gasp!—his first film shot in color in years. As had been initially promised, Tilda Swinton was in the cast.
As it happened, anyone expecting anything terribly different from, well, a Bela Tarr film was going to be mightily disappointed. But those who came in expecting a Bela Tarr film were, for at least a little while, a little confused. This is what I wrote on my then-Premiere-sponsored blog from Cannes, on May 22, 2007:
"A boat has just docked; two men on board are conspiring on the deck. One of them disembarks; from a nearby point on the dock, he signals to the other man on the deck, who throws a suitcase down to him. A little later, at a further point on the dock, the two men fight; one man pushes the holder of the suitcase into the water and flees. A third man has been observing all this. He goes down to the point at the dock where the suitcase-holding man drowned and fishes the suitcase out of the water. He brings it to a secure place and opens it. It is filled with wet banknotes.
In a standard thriller, all of this would most likely be told inside of five minutes, with a lot of exciting cuts to boot. But The Man From London is a Bela Tarr film. Hence, the above-described action takes place in three shots that total about half an hour.
Based on a novel by Georges Simenon (and endorsed by Simenon's son John in the production notes), The Man From London is not, in spite of its title and Tilda Swinton's prominent place in its cast, an English-language film. It is in Hungarian; Swinton speaks her dialogue in English and was dubbed by another actress. This creates a peculiar, international-productions-of-the-'60s effect in what is essentially another Tarr immersion into the black-and-white bleakness of Europe and, natch, man's condition. (And I imagine that this compromise was arrived at largely because these two great souls of contemporary cinema were just that keen to work with each other.) Those expecting something of a departure for Tarr (and they were certainly led to by the Cannes catalog description, which claims the movie has Hungarian and English dialogue, and was shot, gasp, in color) will be a bit let down. Those who luxuriate in Tarr's acutely conjured melancholia (and I am one of them) will swoon."
[Man, do I hate that "natch." In the right context, the word, which I associate largely with Stan Lee's Bullpen reports in Marvel Comics, can work. But this wasn't one of them. Okay, duly noted.]
I'm still moved by John Simenon's endorsement of the film, which speaks of a great sensibility. But I do recall that the language problem very much vexed more than a few viewers. Not just the sight of Swinton dubbed into Hungarian, but the incredibly halting tones of 85-year-old actor István Lénárt, who plays Morrison, the titular man from London, coming to a French coastal town to inquire into a theft of some 60,000 English pounds. The tradition of setting a film in a particular place and then having all the characters speak in a language wholly other was one that was, and still to a certain extent is, honored in world cinema; think of all the American pictures set in ancient Rome and Greece in which the actors speak in American English. Since Godard's deliberately polyglot Contempt, this has been harder to pull off in contemporary-set films; hence an alienation effect that perhaps Tarr did not intend.
But the story wasn't over. Tarr was in fact preparing another soundtrack, one in French and English, truer, then, to the source material, but still involving synch-dubbing wherein the movements of the actors' mouths was not going to match what was heard coming out of them. For Morrison, Tarr would enlist the distinguished British actor Edward Fox, who speaks in a far more assured tone than Lénárt, in any event.
Still, the result, which is preserved on disc right now in a very handsome transfer on a Region 2 UK disc from Britain's oft-inspired Artificial Eye label, plays so differently from the version I saw in Cannes that it's a different film...in several specific respects. These are difficult to pin down. Suffice it to say, the more one watches The Man From London, the more one forgives what seem to be its technical shortcomings. That first half hour, in particular, is like a classic '40s film noir filtered through the sensibility, and aesthetic manifesto, of Gavin Bryars' massively great "The Sinking of the Titanic." The inability to hear Swinton's unmistakeable voice, in either version, is finally compensated for by the great privilege of seeing her face, her hands, her body, captured by a thoroughly engaged and inspired cinematic eye that resembles no other. One can quibble as one likes, but in the end, The Man From London exerts a force like no other, and reveals itself in one's memories and dreams as an indelible work, a remarkable offering from an inimitable pair of filmmakers.