Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hungarian Rhapsody of the Grotesque: Taxidermia

The Communist era might have been a time of great scarcity in Eastern Europe, but there is no shortage of food for the competitive eaters supported by the state in Hungary’s bizarre official submission for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Academy Award. If such a notion sounds like a sick joke, actually you do not know the half of it. Many tragic events happened in Hungary during World War II and the Cold War, but it is all just a backdrop for the Balatony family freak show in György Pálfi’s Taxidermia (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It seems like the Morosgoványi-Balatony men are all a little off. The first we meet is Vendel Morosgoványi, a sad sack soldier whose primary military duties seem to be doing the chores on his lieutenant’s farm and enduring abuse from the officer’s family. In his spare time, he compulsively performs peculiar feats of auto-eroticism, before eventually impregnating the lieutenant’s wife.

The second story arc picks up with their illicit offspring, Kálmán Balatony, who now proudly represents Hungary in international eating contests. This is not a pretty sport. Vast amounts of gruel-like substances are consumed, only to then be relentlessly regurgitated on-screen. Balatony has his professional frustrations, but these are relatively happy times for him, as the husband of Gizella Aczél, the women’s champion eater, with a baby on the way.

That child grows up to be Lajos Balatony, a rail-thin taxidermist, who cares for his father, now a shut-in of Jabba-the-Hutt-like proportions, after his mother abandons them, defecting to coach the American speed-eating team. The younger Balatony’s taxidermy profession and his contemptuous disgust for his father’s gross state lead to some pretty disturbing notions of body image, which culminate in a very twisted conclusion to the scatological Balatony family saga.

While the first two segments are based on short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, the final is entirely the creation of Pálfi. Throughout Tax, he demonstrates an obsession with anatomical deformity that makes hardcore pornography look healthy by comparison. However, he also creates some stunning visuals, like a dazzling montage illustrating the passage of time through the multiple uses of a family bathtub. Yet, it is the preoccupation with bodily fluids and blemishes that defines the film.

Essentially, Tax is a series of dirty jokes dramatized in a Grand Guignol style. Perhaps there is a point in there someplace about the corrosive effects of WWII and Communism on humanity, but it is lost among the shockingly grotesque imagery. Within the triptych, the second segment is both the gentlest and the most sharply written. Gergö Trócsányi and Adél Stanczel bring some welcome humanity to the parts of the competitive eating couple, yet it is largely undone by the unsettling events of the third act.

In a way, Tax is a remarkable achievement in visceral, over-the-top filmmaking. Unfortunately, it is also quite literally a dehumanizing film that reduces its characters to the level of simple meat, finding little meaning in the process. Even moderately sensitive viewers should be strongly cautioned regarding the nature of Tax’s imagery and subject matter, but hardened midnight movie cultists might as well go ahead and have at it. It opens tomorrow (8/14) at the Cinema Village.

(Photos courtesy of Here Media/Regent Releasing)