A cinematic breath of fresh air The Films of Ágnes Kocsis 2: Pál Adrienn

Four years after the release of Friss Levegö, Ágnes Koscis second film saw the light of day. Pál Adrienn premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival in 2010, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. In the film, we follow the obese Piroska, who works as a nurse at a hospital terminal ward. She seems quite miserable and has difficulties standing up for herself at work. She lives with Kálmán who cares mostly about his diorama and his job. One day a new patient arrives at the hospital called Adrienn Pál. The same name as one of Piroska’s best friend at school with whom she later lost contact. Now she decides to find out what happened to her and visits as many people as she can to find clues. However, many of the reactions she gets doesn’t confirm her own memories and are often contradictory to one another.

Deadly Boring Ritual

The film begins with interiors from the hospital. The first scene shows Piroska in an elevator going up from the morgue to the patient’s floor. We follow her out from the elevator while she’s dragging the, now empty, bed behind her. While the sound from the old Spica radio in the elevator fades away, we hear the clomping of her clogs. It’s a sound that will be frequent during the first part of the film. Then we cut to the workstation where we see the nurse sitting in front of three rows of screens that monitor the ECG of each patient. The repetitive sound from those displays, as well as, the sound of Piroska’s clog shoes will be the aural representation of the rut that she is in. An alarm sounds, and it’s time to see, yet another convalescent. Once there, the doctor declares the patient dead and tells Piroska to notify the relatives. In the elevator down to the morgue, she eats a piece of pastry, and it’s not the first one we see her eating. She leaves the body in the morgue. Before she goes out, she turns off the light, and there is a direct cut to her lying in her bed at home, suggesting that her domestic life is as dull as here working one. Her bed with its grid is also similar to the beds we’ve already seen in the hospital.

Pál Adrienn
Éva Gábor as Piroska in Pál Adrienn.

A Formal Affair

Hopefully, my lengthy description of the beginning paints a picture of a film which revels in the use of sound. Since Ádám Fillenz came back after Friss Levegö as cinematographer, it goes without saying that the lensing is topnotch as well. Initially, the camera follows the protagonist through the hospital’s narrow corridors with its drab green colours. Together with the sound design, the effect is quite hypnotic, even though it depicts something dreary. Around thirty minutes into the film, there’s a scene where Piroska enters a cinema. While taking a seat, she asks Kálmán what happened. The answer is a laconic “nothing”. That echoes the sentiment of some of the critics when the film opened, in particular the Anglo-Saxon ones. One reviewer claimed that “it’s practically impossible to buy into the premise emotionally” even though “lensing, sound and production design are topnotch.”

The film is undoubtedly, intentionally, low on story-telling, but formally it’s one of the more formidable efforts of the previous decade. Comparisons have been made with Aki Kaurismäki and even Roy Andersson. Still, I would go further and suggest that the formal splendour on display here is equal to Jacques Tati’s in Playtime (1967). One example is when Piroska pays a visit to a former schoolmate who is now quite wealthy. The camera starts outside the flat when she rings the bell, then follows her inside as the woman talks about her affluent, indolent life, tracks backwards through a corridor that is a stark contrast to the one in the terminal ward, to end up in the vast living room. They sit down in front of some glass doors with someone walking behind it like a shadow theatre, the immensity of the space is enhanced by the sound of whistling and broken glass off-screen. Later, she will meet an interior designer in a fancy space with a spectacular view. Piroska looks around uncomfortably during the numerous interruptions, caused by the phone calls he takes.

A later scene shows Piroska sitting on the tram. At first, it just seems that we are watching her in front of us facing the camera. When the camera moves left, we understand that it is, in fact, a reflection and that she was sitting with her back to us. Once the camera finishes its movement, we see a double reflection. If one is so inclined, one could see this as an image of her journey and that looking for Adrienn will eventually end up with her seeing herself differently.

Diegetic Music gets a Full Score

Unlike the first feature, there was no music written for the film. Instead, all the music heard is diegetic, and it’s used to great effect throughout the film. Kálmán regularly listens to classical music full blast, while working on his diorama. In a sequence that runs for two minutes, the camera follows a model train through the diorama landscape to end up with Piroska sitting behind it silently following the train with her eyes. There are other effective, and sometimes hilarious usages of music as well, whether the location is a nursery home or a karaoke club. The most beautiful use of music occurs during a child’s birthday party in a scene that defies the notion that the film would lack emotion. It’s also a setting that is very colourful. In general, the film becomes more saturated in the second half when Piroska’s world seems to open up and become livelier.

Éva Gábor in Pál Adrienn
Eva Gábor in Pál Adrienn.

It should be pointed out, that for all the cinematic brilliance that the film displays, it wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is, without Éva Gábor in the leading role. She is virtually in every scene, and she’s consistently perfect. It was her first role ever, and she embodies Piroska in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. In a smaller role, we see Izabella Hegyi from Friss Levegö playing a rookie nurse, learning the ropes.

Favourite films are always the hardest ones to describe. Again, I feel I hardly scratched the surface of this fascinating work, and I left out several pieces of the puzzle to avoid spoilers. Hopefully, I managed to stir the curiosity of the reader enough to watch this endlessly rewarding film.

The film can be watched legally on Vimeo.

A cinematic breath of fresh air: The films of Ágnes Kocsis Part 1

Fresh air Ágnes Kocsis

Ágnes Kocsis has completed three features to date. Since her first film was released in 2006, she’s hardly the most prolific director around. Nevertheless, she still stands out as one of the more interesting formalists working today. After three shorts that played in numerous festivals, it was time for her above-mentioned debut. It’s called Fresh air (Friss levegö) and is the story of Viola who works as a restroom attendant in the Budapest metro. 1The international premiere was at the Cannes film festival in the Semaine de la critique section. She lives with her teenage daughter Angéla who resents her mother’s job and dreams about becoming a fashion designer. Whenever Viola comes home from work, the daughter routinely opens all the windows to demonstrate her contempt for what her mother does for a living. They barely communicate at home, and their only mutual activity is watching their favourite Italian TV show, La Piovra (The octopus) in silence. The series and its origin will be significant for future events for both of them.

Lonely Hearts Club One Man Band

We first meet the mother at a dating event. Here we are introduced to the dry sense of humour that Kocsis will revel in, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kaurismäki film. The couples are dancing “left foot first!” to a sad song performed by a man singing behind a keyboard. Cinematically Kocsis diverges from the Finnish director. The dance is depicted with a 360-degree camera movement (beginning at 0.20) which, together with the round lamps in the introductory scene, splendidly introduces the concept of circularity.

The Lonely Hearts Club scene in Friss Levegö

Thus the recurrent motif of the film is established. Visually in the way, round objects regularly appear in the image. At one instance, jokingly when the light forms a halo above a character’s head. The narrative also shows the characters performing the same routines over and over and being stuck in a vicious circle. Viola routinely smells her hand on her way home from work. Once home, she goes through a rigorous cleaning in the bathtub. Her obsession with the scent of the air fresheners hardly seems healthy. At one point in the story, one of the protagonists starts a journey near a circular highway and will later, unexpectedly, end up at the same spot. The storyline itself also seems to end up where it started.2 The script initially had the idea of starting and ending in the same location, but during the editing, it was decided that it would be more interesting to commence the film with the Lonely Hearts Club scene. There are however small signs that new horizons might open up and that greener pastures are awaiting at least one of the characters. Green being the operative word here since that’s the colour that Angéla is associated with throughout the film. She is adept at sewing and designs her clothes, often from second-hand garments and practically always in green. When she asks her mother for money, she receives two green two-hundred Forint notes.

Fifty Scents of Red

If Angéla favours green, there’s never any doubt about which Viola’s favourite colour is. From the very first scene, we see her dressed in red and different shades of red will continuously be associated with her, whether she goes on a date or to work. That goes for her sense of decoration as well. We first see a burgundy armchair and curtain in her home, and later we discover that she uses the same material in her working space, for the wall as well as for the cabinet door. There she also has an artificial red plant (with green leaves) that hums and moves.

Red and green are, of course, complementary colours and one of the points is that even though they might seem like each other’s opposites, they actually have much more in common than Angéla would care to admit. The director partially demonstrates this with the way red and green will interact, in particular, during the second half of the film. A potential boyfriend of Angéla will later be seen in a red sweater. If the Lonely Hearts Club location was reminiscent of a Kaurismäki film, another Nordic director comes to mind when it comes to the portrayal of the living room: Bent Hamer in his debut Eggs (1995). Also a formidable formal work about two old brothers with their daily routine aided by their very low-tech setup. Similarly, we see mother and daughter quietly watching television in a room with a quirky design.

The Virtues of Shoestring Production

Produced on a meagre budget over one year, the film is strikingly shot by Ádám Fillenz. It was his first feature as well, but he collaborated with the director on her second short in 2003. He also lensed Kocsis’ follow-up Pál Adrienn (2010) as well as Tegnap, which screened in last year’s Hungarian film week. If there are numerous memorable shots in the film, there are very few close-ups and those that are present are carefully chosen and all the more effective for it. With all the formal grandeur on display, one shouldn’t forget to mention the thespians. Júlia Nyakó, who was an established actress at the time, is perfect as Viola down to the tiniest movement. She can also be seen in Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul. More surprising is how accomplished Izabella Hegyi’s performance as the daughter is. She never hits a false note, and she would return for Pál Adrienn four years later. As far as I know, those are her only films.

Trying not to spoil too much, I feel I only scratched the surface of what this rich film has to offer. There is much more material that could warrant a formal analysis. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the film never feels dry or academic, but rather perceptive and also quite funny. Friss Levegö was a good start for Ágnes Kocsis, but there were bigger things to come, four years later.

The film can be watched legally on Vimeo