Béla Tarr’s Magnificent Harmonies Gives Way to Anemic Noir in The Man From London


How does one follow the seemingly insurmountable? If you’re David Lynch, you remake Mulholland Drive‘s vision of the fractured self using the post-cinematic vernacular of our present time. First Lynch looked back to noir, then forward to the Net with Inland Empire. But if you’re Béla Tarr, you don’t try.

Like the Lynchian phantasmagoria, the Hungarian director’s equally hermetic, indulgent, and rhapsodic films constitute alternate forms of consciousness—pure-cinema immersions as overwhelming as a fever or a frenzied prayer. So it is a strange disappointment that Tarr follows up his grandiose Werkmeister Harmonies, a bleak but bold metaphysical idyll to pre-millennium tension, with The Man From London, the almost trifling story of one man’s guilt filtered mechanically through a funereal noir prism—a regression of sorts for our most Olympian of film auteurs.

Tarr’s gift has always been to use his refined but subjective artistry to convey and dignify the wants, needs, and customs of provincial people, but he only succeeds here at communicating a conceptual sense of the moral restlessness that grips a man after he witnesses a murder. Shooting in Portuguese locales, which stand in for no place in particular, and having his actors tragically overdub their lines into a number of different languages, Tarr struggles to adapt to an outmoded genre and, in the end, produces his least personal work to date.

The Man From London almost never happened—threatened by a lack of funding and the suicide of producer Humbert Balsan—and its ingenious opening shot suggests a rising from the ashes: a 12-minute panoramic pan up the hull of a ship at least half as imposing as Werkmeister‘s giant stuffed whale and then back and forth across its prow. Tarr’s gripping, technically virtuosic camera maneuvers have always been like beasts skulking and surveying the lay of the land, dramatically asserting and shifting focus and points of view. Here, though, his acrobatic aesthetic jibes only mechanically with the moral quandary of a middle-aged railroad worker, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), who steals a suitcase stuffed with British sterling.

Touched by fog and evil, Tarr’s chiaroscuro technique befits noir, but does noir agree with Tarr? Perhaps sensing the wafer-thinness of Georges Simenon’s source novel, which concerns the efforts of an investigator to retrieve the missing sterling, Tarr allows his camera to literally dance around the flimsily contextualized confrontations between Maloin and his wife (a largely wasted Tilda Swinton) and daughter, but often settles for clinically peering at them and others from a distance or from the back of the head. This film stands as an example of style for the sake of pure and intense but dispassionate style. Call it There Will Be Bloodlessness.