Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Multinational from London

Although Belgian Georges Simenon’s crime fiction often had a strong psychological component, his novels still might seem to be unlikely source material for Hungarian art-house director Béla Tarr. Indeed, some will surely wish Simenon’s most famous character, Inspector Maigret, was on hand to spur the action along in Tarr’s painstakingly deliberate adaptation of The Man from London, screening this week at MoMA.

In an exquisitely filmed opening tracking shot, we see the nocturnal world of Maloin, the railway switchman at a seaport station. Given the late hour and foggy ambiance, it seems like anyone about must be up to something nefarious. Indeed, the two shadowy figures moving in and out of Maloin’s field of vision eventually scuffle over a suitcase, sending one permanently into the drink. When the coast is clear, Maloin ventures down to fish out their suitcase, which he discovers is full of British pounds. So we have our MacGuffin and the game’s a foot, right? Not exactly.

London is a master class in the use of light and shadow, but not in breakneck thriller pacing. Tarr’s shots are meticulously composed and Fred Kelemen’s black-and-white cinematography is arresting. Every still of the film is worthy of framing. However, pulling viewers through the story is clearly not their priority.

For the most part, the actors, like Czech Miroslav Krobot as Maloin, are just props for Tarr, walking in and out of his scenes as needed. American audiences will recognize Tilda Swinton as Maloin’s wife, Camélia, but it is a largely thankless role. However, Hungarian actor István Lénárt provides the film’s only spark of energy as Morrison, an elegantly sinister British investigator, reminiscent of the sort of roles Alec Guinness excelled at late in his career.

Tarr plays games with perception and implies more than he shows. Yet, London adopts enough of the trappings of a film noir mystery that it is not unfair to judge it in that context. Though never explicitly stated, the setting seems vaguely French, shot on location in Corsica. A notoriously cursed project, there may have been more intrigue behind the scenes of London, than on the screen. The suicide of the original French producer led to a long hiatus in production, as the Hungarian-French-German-U.K. financing became even more complicated. The result is a fascinating exasperation of a viewing experience that screens at MoMA through Sunday.