Sunday, 6 November 2016

Szindbád (Zoltán Huszárik, 1971)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2011)

In terms of sheer pleasurable enjoyment, I don’t think any film I’ve seen this year has enraptured me as much as Zoltán Huszárik’s 1971 film Szindbád.

The film is based on Gyula Krúdy’s Szindbád stories, which detail the thoughts, dreams, journeys and fantasies of an ageing but ageless roué and his undimmable fascination with women and the mechanics of seduction. Szindbád is a flatterer, a confidant, a friend, a fantasist, a hypocrite and a contrary and jealous would-be lover, helplessly enmeshed in the fantasies and desires of his own making. He is also, in his imagination, a role player, never happier than when graciously extending advice and forgiveness to women, granting beneficent favour and releasing an admirer from his bond, only to tie himself ever more deeply in her affections. Greying around the temples, he is 50 years old, or 300, or already dead; he is a ghost, a repeated suicide, even, in the stories, a sprig of mistletoe that nearly wears through a pious nun’s skirts through the action of continuous friction.

The film in fact begins with one of his many deaths. ‘Take your master home,’ says a woman to a horse in the film’s opening words, with Szindbád slumped in the cart that it pulls. But just where is home? Certainly not the next house, in which the woman roughly strips him of his winter coat and sends the horse on its way again. In fact, home for Szindbád seems to be no physical place at all, but more a continual mood of subdued erotic affection, or affectation perhaps, that he carries with him to the women that call out to his shade, wearied but not too weary to glance at the ankle belonging to a violet hat that passes him in the street, from their provincial towns.

Conquests is too strong a word for one for whom the trappings and accoutrements of desire seem even more important than its release. Indeed, George Szirtes, translator of Krudy’s Szindbád tales, describes the character as a ‘creature of vestiges’. Huszárik understands this well, composing the film around details as much as character, and by so doing creating a suffuse erotics of autumnal melancholy in which the past intrudes and intertwines with the present, where flashes of a repeated gesture or a past kiss flicker into remembrance, and where a bunch of red carnations can be carried across the years, from a basket thrown into a snowy street to a vase in an old and knowing lover’s house. Where an apple green lampshade is repeated minutes later in the shape and colour of a painted wooden ceiling framed by an arch. And where, from the film’s opening images of close-up details of petals furling and unfurling, of circles of oil floating on soup, of a breeze reddening embers into life, of portraits, pressed flowers and lace, of rain dripping from shingles and a spider's web, we enter a world of restrained and refined sensual delight.

There are numerous moments in Krúdy’s stories of subtly beautiful descriptive phrases
that arrest fleeting images in the mind: ‘when she smiled faintly it was like dreaming on an early spring evening when late blossom covers the apple tree like a white veil,’ he says. The first lines of the story Youth read: ‘once upon a damp and moonlit night night a man with greying hair was watching the autumn mist form figures of chimney-sweeps on the rooftops.’ On an autumnal night in another, ‘the bloodshot moon was sitting like a tipsy old man in the branches of the poplar tree’, while in yet another Szindbád notes ‘the almost invisible lines on [a woman’s] face, like the marks of tiny scuffling birds’ feet’. A man has a voice ‘like broken snow crackling under the sleighs of a wedding party’.

They are moments you wish to dwell on but must leave behind, like Szindbád in fact. It needs someone with a deep understanding of the mood of the Szindbád tales to be able to bring their atmosphere to life without their poetry seeming forced, and Huszárik creates images and scenes drawn from the stories’ essence; scenes we would like to linger over but must consign to memory: a woman heading to a chapel in the blue light of dusk, her pale pink scarf trailing to the ground behind her cornflower blue cloak, the briefest glimpse of a forget-me-not blue dress on a stair between buildings in a provincial town, the glistening quiver of marrow fat knocked out from a bone on to a plate, its seep into the air pockets of warm toast, a comb stroked through long golden hair, bronze chrysanthemums on a Chinese screen.

In fact, the film is an art director’s and costumier’s delight. Scene after scene seem to have been built from a delirious colour scheme  based around the exuberance of a mixed flower-bed, in which improbable juxtapositions match perfectly. Indeed, given the way that Szindbád butterflies around his women, it is appropriate that many of them wear hats that either contain actual flowers or have crowns resembling petals; one woman’s the silk of an infurled yellow rose, another’s an orange lily.

Fanny, dining on a table surrounded by the turmeric walls of a yard, lichen green windows, dusky pink tablecloths and a jade wall trellis, wears a fuchsia dress netted with a coffee-coloured bodice, her fuchsia hat with candy pink feathers and a black silk bow, and eyes lightly shadowed with eau-de-nil.

Florentina wears a crocheted shawl of moss-green, leaf-green and dusk blue squares as she walks between an avenue of trees, their leaves falling in the thousand colours of autumn, as she cradles a bunch of bright orange blooms, a coil of thick copper hair hanging below her white lace hat.

And the film is also a catalogue of every shade of purple, with lilac, lavender, heather, violet, mauve, mallow and magenta catching our eye throughout.

‘Oh God, give me quiet sleep, a peaceful night – help me to forget the scent of their hair, the strange look in their eyes, the taste of their hands,’ says Szindbád. But how will that ever be possible when he returns to a room in which he has met so many, the bold and the shy, the seductive, the chaste and the tearful, and where he is assailed by thoughts of a bodice untied, or boots lying unlaced on the wooden boards, where a lilac silk dress still slips to the floor, and where tresses of long auburn hair are spread, before the candle is dimmed, across a tangerine counterpane and canary yellow pillows.

An ice skater’s red scarf fades into the fog, recalling Szindbád’s scarlet pepper shavings that crimson with the heat of his soup, as his winter fairy takes her leave across the frozen pond, the traces of their dancing marked into the ice as so many glides, curves, scrapes and skitters that will melt with the spring, when the water pulses with reborn urgency beneath.

The film ends as it begins, with one of Szindbad’s many deaths, this time, while pumping the bellows so his female companion can play the church organ. It is sudden, grotesque, ridiculous and ungainly, and I can well imagine Szindbád stepping out from behind a gravestone – as he does some way through the film in fact – and smirking at its recollection as he follows the call to yet another provincial town to look up an old flame and see how the years have treated her, gently brushing her proffered hand with his moustache when they meet and thinking of which violet-scented words he will use.

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