NYFF ’11 Review: Tarr’s Final Testament: “The Turin Horse”

Day 0: It should – it must – be noted that the opening shot following the credits of The Turin Horse is not the now-famous tracking shot, it’s a simple black screen: for out of darkness was this world born, and into darkness will it return.  It’s an easy mistake, because director Bela Tarr and cinematographer Fred Keleman’s four-minute gaze at a horse exerting itself ever forward is a blinding moment of technical brilliance, a fluidly cubist long-take portrait that sets up the structure the rest of the film will follow.

Yet without this darkness the entire project of The Turin Horse becomes something of lesser stakes: the film would warrant laughter in the face of its director’s claim that it will be his last, because he can go no further. Every film is, in one sense, a self-contained world apart from our own; but with this darkness Tarr builds the space of creation and destruction into his film.  As a director who, more than any other working today, has concerned himself with the creation of spaces built entirely of his own worldview, with The Turin Horse Tarr reaches the pinnacle of modernism, a work in which the creation-life-death process is perfectly balanced as both content and medium. Where else could we ask him to go now?

Day 1: The blueprint of life on this earth: a series of domestic activities undertaken by father and daughter. The camera, supremely mobile, follows their actions and in the process defines the space of the world.  In this way, a purely materialist film: there is nothing beyond labor, and nothing without it. It’s also precisely in Tarr’s technical facility that the frequently cited connection with Samuel Beckett breaks down. For Beckett, language was a sickness to be worked through, and when he came to cinema he treated it as language – a foolish and thrilling decision – and the result is there for all to see in Film.  One could take any number of lines from Beckett (“You…remain.” seems particularly apt for The Turin Horse) and find thematic connections with Tarr’s images. But even the simplest words can’t match the direct quality of a cinematic image, particularly ones as fluid and clear-eyed as Tarr’s.

Day 2: The horse, perhaps sensing the end even in the beginning, decides he will no longer work.  Is he an agent of the apocalypse, or a symptom of it?  The cab driver then must find other labor – which he does, at various points splitting wood and punching leather – and already the cycle of life in this self-generating universe is thrown off course.  Later, a man, a stranger or a neighbor (there’s no difference in a world with no history), arrives who rants of the downfall of society at the hands of the ruthless aristocrats.  It’s the only moment in The Turin Horse to acknowledge a past, though judging by the man’s response – “What a load of crap.” – it’s a past that he is necessarily outside of.

Day 3: Where this lone visitor brought with him a history of degradation, the band of gypsies who arrive bring the possibility of a future:  “Come with us to America!” they say to the daughter, a statement that’s also the only acknowledgement within this world of a space outside the inescapable valley where our pair dwells.  The horse, by this point, has given up on eating.

Day 4: The previous day’s gypsies fled the scene in a hail of curses, a mystic assault whose damage is manifested in the suddenly dried well.  Lacking for water, saddled with a horse who will no longer work or eat, and faced with winds that howl ever more loudly (not just aurally but visually: Tarr’s obvious use of wind machines is but one of his many theatrical gestures), the family packs up, coaxes the horse from its stall, and heads over the horizon.  In a lengthy take that recalls the famously aborted take from Vincent Gallo’s original cut of The Brown Bunny, they head out of the valley and over the hill only to turn back within a minute of disappearing. No reason given; no reason to have one. The Turin Horse exists to chart the creation and destruction of a world within a predetermined space. Here there is no escape beyond the horizon.

Day 5: “What is this darkness?”  Suddenly, the world has exhausted itself:  even the lanterns and the stove lack energy to burn. The daughter’s question, phrased as something one might find in a film by Terrence Malick, is indicative of her character:  with her gangly, resolute walk and curious, blank face, she seems but a child, even as she shows all the responsibility and efficiency of an old housewife.  The father understands the darkness no better than his virgin offspring. Like her, he comes into this world without experience, he too can only know what he has lived here, what Tarr – and we – have allowed him.

László Krasznahorkai begins the film with the apocryphal story of the onset of Nietzsche’s madness following the whipping of a horse, a fact that, combined with the film’s title, has led nearly everyone to believe that this is that proverbial horse.  Yet Krasznahorkai himself says that we know nothing of that horse:  one idea begets another, one history begets another, occurring in series, rather than in a continuous stream.  This film is a world as a succession of self-contained worlds, each fully formed and perfect.  Tarr finds real presence in his images – with their extreme corporality, only the women in Betrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance are more physically present this year – and it’s his conviction in portraying the dogged existence of being that reminds us that Tarr is a nihilist, but not a misanthrope:  “Tomorrow we’ll try again.”

Day 6: Only two potatoes remain, and like the horse, man and woman have no energy to eat them. If The Turin Horse is a fitting end game, it’s not because Tarr has pushed his bleak worldview as far as it will go – this is a snappy film, one that in its sense of movement clicks along with great energy, the energy of life – but because he has never before achieved such an insularly realized world, one that begins and ends in the absence that is blackness.

It’s here where we realize why Tarr had to shoot black & white for every film after Almanac of the Fall, a decision which has nothing to do with austerity and everything to do with the strict delineation of absence and presence (though of course the two mix). The relationship between black and white is the source of the drama; to envision the film, and this shot in particular, in color is to imagine a space stripped of its cosmic drama.  Tarr has certainly made better films – more interesting stories, more interesting ideas – but never before has the balance of absence and presence been so perfect.  Here, he’s finally succeeded at becoming that which he feels so certain does not exist.  He is the Father, and The Turin Horse is both Son and Holy Ghost.

Day 7: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” – Genesis, 2:2

Phil Coldiron is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Slant, The House Next Door, and LA Weekly, and he attempts to be as concise as possible on Twitter.

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