Katalin Varga (dir Peter Strickland, 2009)
NB This review necessarily contains plot spoilers.
Writing about British director Peter Strickland’s debut feature, filmed in Romania without a drop of funding from the UK film council, poses some interesting challenges. If the audience yields to its dramatic conceits, it can be argued to be a well-crafted film that generates some teasing moral ambiguities. It’s also infused with tension and suspense, and benefits greatly from an entrancing attention to detail in its sound design. The film takes place in an environment mysteriously divorced from time – the use of mobile phones reminds us that the setting is contemporary and not medieval. Perhaps its greatest strength is a reminder that the existence of social attitudes far removed from our own greatly restrict people’s life choices in many parts of the world.
However, for many, such a positive appraisal would depend on some pretty colossal logical and emotional leaps. In the most positive reviews, the film has been described as a tragedy, but the concept only works when an audience can empathise with the central characters. By the film’s gruesome (and arguably rather crass) conclusion, I had rather lost patience with everyone except the innocent child at its centre.
The film is undoubtedly promising, but I wonder about the extent to which critics often exaggerate the originality and impact of first time directors. The film’s plot and mood bear more than an incidental resemblance to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and the well reserves of arthouse cliché (shaky camera footage, self-consciously symbolic images, slow tracking shots and, yes, the obligatory rain storms) are drained yet further to inform Strickland’s cinematic language. Some have cited Bela Tarr as a key influence, but there’s little of Tarr’s icy weirdness here. A more transparent inspiration for me would be the bewilderingly overrated Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I was also, at times, reminded of Andrei Zwygantsev’s vastly superior ‘The Return’.
Some have seen the film’s central secret as an elaborate mystery, but there seems little avoiding the fact that ‘Katalin Varga’ has that grinding inevitable misery common to this style of film-making. Sensible and insightful viewers will probably be aware from the start that Katalin has been grievously abused, with or without the aid of plot spoilers. It’s possible that the desire for revenge after such a terrible act must be overwhelming – what is much harder to accept is that any woman would be so reckless as to so endanger their ten year old child.
The bond between mother and son imbues this film with moments of real charm and grace, yet we’re expected to square these images and scenes with Katalin’s brutal and calculated behaviour and her repeated abandoning of her child. Where exactly is Orban when Katalin recounts her grim tale in all its loathsome detail on that boat trip? It’s a bizarre scene, but one that seems to service the film’s internal poetry more than it does a believable storyline. Katalin maintains an unflinching stance when reunited with her attackers which possibly stretches the bounds of credulity.
It is difficult for me to put myself in the position of either a violated woman or that of a rapist – but this film demands that we do both in order to comprehend the unbearably tense situation that unfolds towards its conclusion. Would a rapist and his sidekick really both completely fail to recognise the woman they attacked? Would an abused woman be able to maintain such brutal poise when confronting her attackers? Would she really endanger her child in the process? The extent to which the film is convincing depends on your answers to these questions.
Strickland’s film is undoubtedly provocative – and, particularly interesting in light of the recent Polanski arrest is its portrayal of an unpunished criminal reminded of his actions ten years after the event. I initially felt winningly hypnotised by the film’s peculiar mix of suspense and contemplation but the final third ratchets up the brutality and violence to an extent that seems self-conscious. I was left with the nagging sense that, rather than showing us a strong woman enacting her revenge, Strickland in fact risks joining the club of directors that revel in female suffering.