The stock noir constituents of nefarious criminal deeds, male existential malaise and bluesy chiaroscuro mise-en-scène comprise this violently brooding latest from Hungarian doyen of the slow-cooked metaphorical saga, Béla Tarr. The story centres on Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a brusque railway switchman who appropriates a suitcase full of banknotes after he witnesses a bungled drop-off on the dockside beneath his watchtower, then, not knowing how to follow-up his criminal impulse, swiftly rejects his family and his morals. In tone, it reminds of Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ and Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, especially the idea of innocence (such as it is) lost at the hands of reckless endeavour, and Tarr’s ingenious use of visual repetition brilliantly conveys how crushing, silent guilt slowly forces Maloin into a psychological corner.
Yet, there are problems: the choice of ‘straight’ source material – one of Belgian writer Georges Simenon’s lesser-known pulp crime novellas –instantly clasps a stranglehold on the film’s intentions, carelessly dividing viewer attention between a disposable criminal plot, and a broader discussion on themes of theft, murder, shame and voyeurism. Visually, too, we’re only allowed a diluted rendition of that now-legendary ‘Tarr touch’ – the magisterial, minutely orchestrated black-and-white creeping camerawork. The sound, so rich and mysterious in past work, is here limited to tapping hammers in the middle distance and groaning accordion dirges which do little to cover-up in this released version the clumsy French dubbing of its Hungarian and British cast (which includes Tilda Swinton).
Yet, although the film’s overall meaning remains open – perhaps, too open (after its Cannes premiere, for instance, one critic told me they thought it was a musical) – ‘The Man from London’ lacks the grandiose ‘cosmic’ intimations of the director’s past work, and though it contains many moments of sublime cinematic choreography, this is finally good Tarr, but not great Tarr.