QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE TALLINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL
Tamas Merthner (played by the director Gabor Reisz himself) is 33 years old and his pretty girlfriend has just decided to break up with him. In Paris, of all places. Tamas returns heartbroken to Hungary, where he encounters his family and countless memories from the past. He has to start a new life, and to get a new job. Sounds like a banal story? That’s because it is. Bad Poems is one of these magical films with the power to transform the ordinary into extraordinary, the very personal into something universal.
The plot is urgent in its simplicity, while the narrative structure is superb in its ingeniousness. Often the same sequence is repeated over and over in different. But this is not the butterfly effect from Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998). This is Tamas’s fertile imagination, combined with an unreliable memory. There’s also a touch of Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) in the way the director deconstructs the film into hardly discernible layers, looking back at his own childhood and family members. The difference is that the Hungarian director is far more lighthearted, with a puerile sense of humour, plus the visuals are not as exquisite as in the Russian film.
The film is composed of many layers and it isn’t always possible to work out exactly where each sequence belongs. There’s reality, there’s Tamas’s memory, there’s Tamas’s imagination, there are allegories and there is television, plus everything else in between. younger actors are utilised in order to portray Tamas at various stages of his life. Grainy images are often used to represent the past. Black and white is also an occasional device. Yet it’s impossible to determine whether some parts of the film did actually happen or are just a figment of Tamas’s imagination.
Memory is fallible, adding to to the complexity of the narrative. Gabor remembers how he used to beat up his friend as a child, yet his friend doesn’t seem to remember it (maybe he doesn’t want to remember it?). He also recalls being with Anna on a lavender field in full bloom. Or maybe they weren’t blooming at all. Maybe it wasn’t even lavender. As a teenager, Gabor concocted a story about having sex with a girl inside a tyre. He repeated the story so many times that he eventually began believing it. After all, maybe it was true.
At times, current-day Tamas converses with the younger versions of himself. Cheeky teen Tamas asks 33-year-old Tamas: “Tell me the lottery numbers”. In the film’s climax: Tamas has a huge argument with his younger selves, and the commotion culminates in an eruption of violence. Teen Tamas resents that 33-year-old Tamas ended up in a boring corporate job, while 33-year-old Tamas blames his younger self for writing bad poems. This scene could have easy slipped into cliches, but it never does. It’s absolutely original, in all of its absurdity.
Some sequences are sordid and ridiculous. Ironically, these are mostly the sequences that belong to the present. Tamas lands a job in an advertising agency with a huge contract for a client called Pipi Chick Meat Factory. The negotiations are very strange, with an interpreter from Hungarian to German and another one from German to Polish (presumably Pipi comes from Poland and they couldn’t find a Hungarian to Polish interpreter). The director seems to be saying: “corporate work is far more absurd and pointless than anything else”.
The director has a fabulous sense of humour, with plenty of self-deprecating jokes throughout the film. And despite the protagonist’s broken heart, Bad Poems has a unapologetic joie-de-vivre. Tamas imagines phoning everyone and telling them that they are “wonderful”. At one point, everyone in the bus breaks out playing an instrument for Tamas, in a sequence that reminded me a lot of Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet video. It brought quiet tears to my eyes.
There’s also a touch of politics, as Tamas visits a square in central Budapest and recalls the past, hinting at a certain nostalgia of Iron Curtain times. Talks of Viktor Orban are not rosy. Tamas’s father embraces the ultra-xenophobic rhetoric of the far-right leader, which Tamas does not seem to approve.
This is a small masterpiece, and I highly commend the young director’s sensibility. This is a film about a grown-up man longing to live his childhood dreams, and constantly wondering how his life would be had he done things slightly different. This also a film about the frailties of masculinity, and how to grapple with them. Don’t be put off by your bad poems. Just carry on writing them Or make them into a movie.
Bad Poems has just premiered as part of the Competition of the 22nd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. So far, it’s my favourite film at the event (which DMovies is covering live).