English Title: Lovefilm
Original Title: Szerelmesfilm
Country of Origin: Hungary
Director: István Szabó
Producer(s): Tibor Dimény
Screenplay: István Szabó
Cinematographer: József Lőrincz
Editor: György Sívó
Runtime: 124 minutes
Genre: Drama/Historical/Romance/Art Cinema
Volume: East European
Jancsi Oláh and his neighbor Kata Jánosy grew up as close friends in World War II, during which time Jancsi’s father perished and both learned that their nanny, Bözsi, was killed by the Nazis. Their puppy love endured a formal condemnation as anti-social by a school committee of their peers under the subsequent communist rule, while they dreamed about seeing the world. After the teenage Jancsi and Kata had briefly drifted apart, the former caught a glimpse of his one-time friend at a practice for an obligatory parade, traced and began to court her, and they fell in love. When the opportunity arose during the pro-democratic insurgency in 1956, Kata defected to France while Jancsi chose to stay in Hungary. In the present, although he is dating Jutka, Jancsi eagerly takes the train to visit Kata when the ban on travel to the West is relaxed, and the pair resume their infatuation. But when Jancsi’s permit to travel to the West expires they both face difficult decisions that will irrevocably alter their lives and relationship.
Perhaps the closest filmic parallel to Proustian-cum-Joycean writing, Szerelmesfilm/Lovefilm became communist Hungary, and to some degree Central Europe’s, first tentative but authentic and wide-ranging view of its current history. István Szabó had already used its title, the Hungarian label for the genre ‘romance’, as a subtitle to the last of his shorts: Te/You (1964), which presaged Lovefilm in its lyrical attempt to display an inner world. Lovefilm (Szabó’s third feature) then became an isolated achievement in feature film by making the cogently jumbled timeline of its protagonist’s introspection imaginatively artful, as well as readily accessible to and readable by contemporary audiences. It delivered an experiential panorama of the past three decades, which touched on previously avoided or distorted events, with sufficient political self-control to pass the censors, but enough exposition to enable the viewers to relate to it narrative: exposition centered around Hungary’s role in World War II; early communist repressions; the pro-democratic insurgency of 1956; defections to the West; even an oblique recapitulation of the Soviet presence in the brief Métro montage with Russian émigrés and paintings. The film’s major unconvincing bow to communism is the absence of communication between Jancsi and Kata about the pros and cons of defecting, possibly together, which would have had to happen between lovers. The viewers understood and perhaps many supplied similar discussions from their own experiences; an involvement on which the film relies through Jancsi’s and Kata’s adult, and ultimate, separation.
The film-making provides little temporal anchoring for the modern viewer to hold on to. Its cookie-cutter make-up keeps the child actors’ faces identical although their characters’ age shifts up and down between about eight and thirteen, and the same applies to the adult actors whose faces are indistinguishable between seventeen and 27. The camera sometimes fails to zoom in or hold a shot long enough for the audience to realize the thematic associations it establishes between temporally jumbled sequences (a device that represent Jancsi’s train of thoughts). By contrast the technical continuity problems with some scenes in France, at the train station and with the incongruous images of the sea (spliced with footage from Lake Balaton in Hungary in lieu of the Mediterranean), cause less confusion and were a result of the film-makers’ meagre hard-currency budget for filming in the West.
What worked for its target audience, but does not come across as intuitively now, is the effective anchoring of scenes through references in the dialogue and mise-en-scène, as Lovefilm leapfrogs over decades through a maze of associative cuts that discount chronological sequencing (a technique that remains the essence of the film, and which secures its place in the history of cinema). There is little resemblance to conventional flashbacks. A fifteen-minute sequence, for instance, contains nine shifts in both temporal directions without returning to the film’s present, with the links remaining as visual or ambient juxtapositions. For instance, the soundtrack of Jancsi’s and Kata’s lovemaking in France is brought to a climax with a protracted sequence of their sleigh ride as children.
The societal core of the story focuses on Jancsi’s decision to remain in communist Hungary, which pleased the authorities and could not have been resolved in any other way (the screenplay could not have shown him defecting to the West). But it also reflected the experiences of many Hungarians, and by extension numerous Central Europeans in general, almost all of whom inevitably remained at home regardless of the consequences because that was their lot and they had nowhere to go (something that Kata’s father elaborates in a poignant nine-sentence monologue aimed at the viewer but conflated with his wife’s POV via a shot-reverse-shot cut). That the resonance and the bittersweet love story tied directly to its apparently descriptive but contextually often lightly ironic or critical historical background made it an art film popular with a wide audience, and one of the key works of Szabó’s career.
Author of this review: Martin Votruba