Monday, September 04, 2006

Goulash Backlash

Two films treating of life in the former Eastern bloc, albeit in wildly different ways. The first is a Hungarian film called Taxidermia, directed by the 31-year-old György Pálfi, who had a minor arthouse hit, Hukkle, a few years back. The second film released this year set in the world of taxidermy, the first being Fabián Bielinsky's classy Argentine thriller El Aura (which, strangely enough, had a brief scene with a crowd of Hungarian taxidermists). Taxidermia tells the tale of three generations of a very strange Hungarian family, from the grandfather, who is a harelipped, sexually-frustrated serviceman sometime before the second World War, through to his 'athletic' son and his grandson, who is the only family member to take up the métier of the title. The grandfather is given to what appear to be paedophile fantasies (yes, you read that correctly) and bizarre methods of masturbation. He impregnates the gargantuan wife of his sadistic superior officer and gets a bullet in the head for his troubles.

The resulting progeny becomes an élite competitor in a surreal international eating competition, which features enormous competitors and much graphic vomiting, against a backdrop of Socialist-era propaganda. It is strangely funny and, I suspect has a number of things to say about life under the mummification of Communism that I did not quite get. The logic of the film falters somewhat in the final third when the taxidermist is introduced in the present day, and though there are some fantastic scenes with his father - now swollen to the size of Jabba the Hutt and subsisting on thousands of chocolate bars every day - the plot strand involving the taxidermy seems like it belongs in another film. But, apart from this lopsidedness the film is enjoyable, even if it is possibly the most grotesque film ever made; I personally know only five or six people that would be even remotely interested in watching it but it is worth it for the superb line bellowed by the father's sprawling mass at his taxidermist son: 'Do you know who I am? There's a vomit named after me!'

Much more conventional is the Romanian film How I Celebrated the End of the World, a semi-autobiographical account by director Catalin Mitulescu of a teenage girl's life in the last year of the Ceaucescu dictatorship. The heroine Eva is expelled from her lycée after she carries the can for her boyfriend destroying a bust of Ceaucescu, and after being sent to a Technical School she falls for the son of a political dissident, though her parents try to get her back with the old cad of a boyfriend, who is the son of a thuggish but influential cop. The film may not be on the same level as this year's other Romanian release, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu, which is the best film I have seen so far this year, but it is an engaging enough account of the decrepitude and idiocy of the regime that was toppled just before Christmas 1989. Like Enver Hoxha's Albania, the Romania of Ceaucescu was underpinned by a coalition of willing yobs and cowards, which is nowhere more evident in the endless, vacuously patriotic songs that the pupils are forced to sing before every class. It strikes me how much more nationalistic than socialist many of these regimes were in their outlook; they used the exact same devices as bourgeois 19th-century nationalism, but reproduced on a suitably mass scale. The film, of course ends happily, and I was reminded of a chapter I read recently in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics, which suggested that Ceaucescu's repealing of Romania's liberal abortion laws in 1965 created a generation of young people that was eventually going to drag him down and summarily execute him in the space of a week.