Saturday, April 16, 2016

DIFF ’16: Demimonde

When a prostitute is as successful as Elza Mágnás, they call her a courtesan. For a scandalous woman in 1910 Budapest, she had done quite well for herself. She landed a wealthy sugar-daddy who kept her in comfort, but her mercenary ruthlessness would ultimately be her undoing. The events leading up to Mágnás’s violent end are chronicled in Attila Szász’s Demimonde (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Dallas International Film Festival.

When Kató Szebeni applies for an assistant maid position, she expects something more like Downton Abbey than Fanny Hill. The dynamic between the housekeeper, Rózsi Kóbori and their mistress, Mágnás, is conspicuously tense, but the virtuous young woman is decidedly impressed by her dinner guest, the romantic poet, Gergely Sóvágó. It seems the lady of the house has been cheating on her benefactor, Max Schmidt, with the ardent young man. This particularly offends Kóbori, who knew both Mágnás and Schmidt when their circumstances were drastically different.

There was a time when Mágnás and Kóbori were both “hostesses” working at the “supper club” run by Cili Mama. Both spent quality time with Schmidt, but Mágnás managed to hook him. She now takes sadistic pleasure in reminding Kóbori how greatly their fortunes have diverged. Yet, the resentful housekeeper takes liberties few servants would be allowed. Obviously, the naïve Szebeni is unprepared for such a hothouse atmosphere, so Mágnás takes her under her wing, knowing full well it will only increase Kóbori’s bitterness.

Demimonde is like the classiest Danielle Steel story ever. It is just brimming with cattiness and sexual betrayal, yet it always looks like a Merchant-Ivory production. Frankly, it is rather baffling that it has not been picked up by a specialty distributor yet, because it is wildly commercial, at least by the standards of Hungarian cinema. Patricia Kovács and Dorka Gryllus give no quarter as the former friends, whereas Laura Döbrösi gives real emotional heft and dimension to Szebeni’s wide-eyed innocence. Watching the resulting friction is quite entertaining.

András Nagy’s cinematography is suitably lush, while Gergely Parádi’s anachronistic electronic soundtrack conveys the hedonistic recklessness of Mágnás’ world. It is an erotically charged film that also happens to be smart and richly realized. Highly recommended for patrons of mature costume dramas, Demimonde screens this coming Tuesday (4/19) and Wednesday (4/20), as part of the Dallas International Film Festival.