In a bleak, claustrophobic apartment divided into many rooms, five characters collide violently against each other – both physically and psychologically. The rich older woman who owns the apartment (Hédi Temessy) is at odds with her son, who is only interested in her money. Meanwhile, the old woman’s live-in nurse (Erika Bodnaár), who is living here with her boyfriend, allows herself to be seduced by the new tenant, a dishevelled teacher called Tibor (Pal Hetenyi), who is struggling with money problems of his own and, when Tibor wins the old woman’s trust and steals a piece of her jewellery, it brings tensions to a head.
Locked into their seemingly endless cycle of emotional cruelty, the characters’ only common ground seems to be their inability to cope with life in the outside world, wallowing in their shattered dreams and a desperate passive-aggressive need to dominate and tear one another apart. When the story finally reaches its desolate climax, we are forced to remember the quote from Aleksandr Pushkin that opened the film: “…the devil is probably leading, going round and round in circles”, which leaves us wondering if this apartment might, in fact, be some banal seventh circle of Hell, and that, despite the uneasy resolution suggested by the closing scene, these characters will never escape the four walls and are doomed to repeat this ugliness forever.
Autumn Almanac is an uncomfortable film to watch, and feels more like a piece of experimental theatre than a movie, but it’s a hard film to turn away from. The performances – especially Hedi Temessy’s – are hypnotic, and although director / writer Béla Tarr loads his screenplay with some fairly unwieldy navel-gazing dialogue; it’s the atmosphere which really makes this something special. Before making Autumn Almanac, Tarr had been something of a realist whose films were closer to social commentaries. Autumn Almanac was a complete change to what he had done before and marked a turning point in Tarr’s career. It feels very formal and expressionistic, with all the performances very heavily choreographed. Along with Tarr’s subdued but heavily stylised lighting, his slowly prowling camerawork and a directorial style that doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall but definitely leans heavily against it (especially during a fight between Tibor and the nurse’s boyfriend, which is shot from underneath the actor’s feet and presumably required a ridiculously thick piece of glass and a lot of nerve from the performers), everything combines to make this simple, very intimate little drama extremely disquieting. On the face of it there is nothing supernatural or fantastical about Autumn Almanac, but in many ways it feels like a ghost story waiting to happen. And the uneasy sensation that last shot leaves you with, won’t quickly be forgotten.
AUTUMN ALMANAC (1984) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: BÉLA TARR / STARRING: HÉDI TEMESSY, ERIKA BODNÁR, PAL HETENYI, MIKLÓS B. SZÉKELY / RELEASE DATE: 14TH MARCH