Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Love (Károly Makk, 1971)

(revised for a MovieMail podcast in 2010. A poem about the same film, Notes on Love, appears in The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, published by Smokestack Books in 2016)

As you might expect from a film with such an artless title, Love tests expectations and definitions of the word, not least because the main characters are separated – János has been locked up as a political prisoner in early 1950s Hungary, while Luca is managing as best she can while also visiting Janos’s dying, bedridden mother. To ease his mother’s mind, Luca writes her letters, ostensibly from János in America, where she has invented for him a madly successful life as a film director. Her letters – touching in their transposition of local detail, fantastical in their imaginings, poignant in her need that fills the spaces between the lines – are read through the prism of his mother’s need to sustain her final days through belief in his success.

Appropriately for a film that use objects and associations in a web of visual poetry, threaded through reminiscence, memory and a present darkened by the wearying effort of holding the fear of loss at bay, I was reminded of the film and rewatched it after reading a poem from 1961, also called Love, and written by the Serbian poet Ivan Lalić. Its quiet celebration of physical proximity and the tenderness of ageing together is utterly different to that of the film and yet, through its enquiry into the intersection of time and love, it stands as a promise of unrealised possibilities, of an intimacy that has been deprived from János and Luca, or anyone else who has been needlessly and forcefully separated at the whim of political expedience. Here is part of it:

For years I have been learning your features, where the days
Impress their tiny fires; for years I have memorised
Their shimmering uniqueness, and the latticed lightness
Of your movements behind the transparent draperies
Of the afternoon; and so I no longer recognise you
Outside the memory which surrenders you to me,
And every day I find it harder to tame the current of time
Which does not flow through you, through the gentle metal
Of your blood;
            if you change, I change equally,
And with us that world built around an instant
Like fruit around a kernel, woven of unreal flesh
With the taste of lightning, the taste of dust, the taste of years,
The taste of snow melting on the flame of your skin.

The film Love is built around a kernel of absence. As such, it is unsurprising that it concentrates on the objects and textures of lives inhabiting the everyday space of that absence, the grain of waiting that fills the silence between the chimes of the clock in János’s mother’s room.

From the pane of glass that trembles ever so slightly after the opening credits, breaking their spell and leading us into the film, as János’s mother looks out of the window, framed by the reflection of bare, dark winter trees, Love is a film filled with screens and lenses, transparent images of separation and distortion – spectacles, a magnifying glass, window glass, mirrors. In fact, this theme of separation is signalled even before the credits as, to a dark subterranean pulsing, photographs of stamps on a letter, then János and Luca are flashed up, separated in the film itself by black frames.

I don’t think there is an extraneous image in this film. Even the brief linking shots, of leaves in a dark puddle, of Luca walking alone down a cobbled street or sitting in a tram waiting for it to leave, reinforce an feeling of a relationship abraded by arbitrary injustice.

The camera tracks across surfaces: a cracked pavement wet with rain, a metal boot scraper, more rain collecting in the pitted treads of steps, the peeling varnish on fence posts creating its own patterns to spite the smooth surface that was once laid down. And meanwhile, Luca and János’s mother play out their relationship with the coaxing out of familiar stories and the exasperation with helplessness, their teasing dialogue capturing the mixture of affection and resentment that typifies such situations. Janos’s mother is often shown with her hand outside the sheets, needing touch but resentful too that it can’t be her son who touches her: ‘When I die, only my son will touch my hand … if my son can’t hold my hand then I want to be alone.’ Scenes of contact are used sparingly and are all the more tender because of it. When Luca washes her mother-in-law’s hand, sponging it, holding it, towelling it dry, she prolongs the touch beyond the perfunctory needs. It is a brief but central moment to the film. It is a touch that neither prefers but because of the absence of János – one’s husband, the other’s son – it is all they have. There are a number of types of love in this film. This is one composed of fortitude and forbearance, restraint and fear, nobility in the face of injustice; the belief that you may meet again, the acceptance that you may not.

In the space of a few frames, days leak from one to another, as days do during a time of dying. A few steps walked on a street, a bunch of flowers placed into a vase an emptied glass phial and cotton wool on a table carry us through hours and days, as does the brief light from an opened door that falls across the old woman’s bed. The hand and arm that Luca holds is faintly speckled, like the skin of the halved lemon on the saucer near the bedside, on which a light is turned on and off.

The grille on János’s cell door is like the grille of a stove. Inside, he is given a shave, his eyes trying to probe from the barber what this unexpected care might mean. He is without expectation. Even when he is walked along the chain-link passageways and then through a door, his eyes are downcast; anything that wishes for his attention will claim it from him soon enough. After the return of his possessions, an inspection and signing out in the bleaching light of a doctor’s room, the contrast harsh on Janos’s face, he sets out to return to what was once his home. Sudden release does not mean shocked happiness or pleasure, he is too numbed and too fearful for such emotions yet, too fearful that his ground is still uncertain – as when he nearly bumps into soldiers when boarding a tram – and can yet be taken away from him. His taxi driver recognises his look immediately. Political? he asks. Yes, responds János.

At one point, as we watch him through the glass of a window, he buys a newspaper. In a film in which his wife and mother have established a relationship through letters, in which what is said and what is not said dance through their words, nodding at mischievous duplicity and desperate need as they do so, it seems appropriate, and if he but knew it, portentous, that the print has leached through the thin paper, blurring what can be read. How to begin to make sense of his new situation? He makes it home, a sprig of forsythia in his hand, blossom on the trees after a cold, wet spring, but there is no-one behind the net curtain covering the glass of the door of the apartment. The concierge lets him in when he returns. He waits, glances into a mirror that faces him down, leading him to drop his head in shame at the blank weariness he sees in his own eyes. He glances at the door, listens to the glass bowl squeal of a tram taking the bend, peers out of the window beneath the blind, waits, sees his mother’s spectacles in a box of her odds and ends.

Later, after an age of waiting, János and Luca are in the same room.

- Can you get used to me again? asks János.
- I love you
, Luca replies.
- I’ve grown old
, says János.
Luca washes his body.
- Will you sleep with me tonight?
asks János.
- Yes
- Will you stay with me all night?
- Yes. Every night, as long as I live,
replies Luca.

The place where we leave them, a place of tender sadness, forgiveness and a proximity that can finally allow the comfort of weariness, a place where there need be no barriers for nothing can be hidden, calls to mind the words from another Lalić poem, Four Psalms, in which he writes:

I’ll make you a land where words turn of their own accord
into birds, taking on lives of their own
That last as long as they have meaning

A land which won’t go away if you close your eyes,
Like a strip of light under someone else’s door
Extinguished by a stranger’s indifferent act

Love can be many things. At this moment in the film it is the gift of a starting point in the middle of a life.

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