Arriving at the Curzon Renoir in London to see Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, there’s a sign on the stairs featuring Jean Renoir’s declaration that “the saving grace of the cinema is that with patience and a little love we may arrive at that wonderfully complex creature which is called man.” The Turin Horse is a phenomenon that meets and exceeds the challenge set forth by those words. Meets it, because it is an encounter with humanity as sublime as that which any film can offer; and exceeds it, because it goes beyond the limits of what we call human to ask a profound question.
The Turin Horse’s director Béla Tarr, and his regular collaborators Ágnes Hranitzky (co-director and editor), László Krasznahorkai (writer) and Mihály Víg (composer) are often regarded as demanding a lot of patience from their audience. It might also be said that they offer little in the way of love; The Turin Horse contains much less comedy than Sátántangó, probably Tarr’s most celebrated work, whose sheer length (a staggering 450 minutes) is enough to turn off most viewers before they can learn of its bleak plot and selfish characters. But The Turin Horse also contains a more sincerely hopeful portrait of existence than most films can aspire to. Which is why it’s pretty shocking to learn that the Curzon Renoir is the only cinema in the country where it is being shown.
The film begins with the narrator’s explanation of the title. He tells of how Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a breakdown (from which he never recovered) after seeing a horse being beaten for refusing to move. We then see the horse and its owner, a man in his late fifties, travelling through stormy weather. The wind, rain and music recur throughout the film’s six-day structure, during which time the horse stops working for its master and his daughter. Although they are visited in their isolated home on two occasions, their lives seem to consist mostly of routine acts of sitting, sleeping, cooking, cleaning and dressing- the man can do little else as he has the ability to move only one of his hands. These events are minimal, but they become essential to the eye as the only means by which we can see life being lived.
The narrator returns now and again, and the visitors’ appearances are brief, yet most of the dialogue is given to these supporting players. But there is little dialogue, and when any of the characters do communicate verbally it can be perplexing: there is a contradiction, for example, in that the anecdote about Nietzsche takes place in Italy but the protagonists drink pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy, as well as speak in Hungarian. More confusing are the contents of a seemingly spiritual book given to the daughter. And the most vital decision in the film’s plot is made off-screen. At the very least, we can infer two fairly general pieces of information: the condition of these characters is not limited to a single time or place, and could occur in similar form elsewhere; and also that the narrative does not obey conventionally realistic rules, since the amount of information withheld from us seems excessive. The ending in particular makes a lot more sense if we follow this last suggestion, in that the rules of what can and can’t be shown in the frame seem to be broken.
Existence itself seems to be rescued by the central dilemma posed here: when faced with loss and inevitable death, should you go on living, or refuse to? There’s no answer to this question, except that by phrasing it in this way The Turin Horse makes a daring proposition: when you have the power to take your own life, you can choose how to live. This isn’t as morbid as it sounds – that is, if we take the plight of the horse seriously. The most important adaptation from the film’s source is that as well as refusing to work, the horse refuses to eat. We could view this refusal as a symptom of suffering until the film suggests that it can also be seen as an act of rebellion.
There is a paradox surrounding the presence of animals on film. Most animals have to be tamed, trained or misrepresented to appear in a movie, and must submit to human dominance; conversely, if a film wishes to draw attention to such violence, it will struggle to give most animals the life onscreen it accords humans. The Turin Horse escapes this bind by suggesting that the most ethical approach to involving animals in human endeavours is to validate their existence by pointing out the loopholes in the contract of enslavement we offer them. These are then placed alongside the essential freedoms of human existence. By undermining any assumption that humans are not animals, and by creating a principle of equality amongst different species, the film challenges how humans both relate to their surroundings and demand or deny respect for all forms of matter.
The film is about survival amidst the depletion of light, water and shelter, and this takes place within (as well as defying the assumptions of) a hugely absorbing style of filmmaking. The actors are captivating, the music is hypnotic, the cinematography is beautiful; but the film is above all unashamedly proud of its manipulation of light, using darkness to draw the spectator’s attention to this most fundamental ingredient and in its last, technically impossible moments claiming that there are some questions which only film can ask. Tarr has announced that this is the last film he will direct, and so it is a huge disappointment for British filmgoers that the Curzon will be the only cinema showing it in the country.
Illustration by Leonie Gavrias