Both a masterpiece and a badge of honour for its survivors, Béla Tarr's extraordinary 1994 adaptation of László Krasznahorkai's novel Sátántangó achieves the purest imaginable distillation of a particular arthouse aesthetic, and - not coincidentally - stakes some claim to being the least commercial movie ever made. Comprising a full seven hours of long takes photographing hunched and put-upon humanoids traversing muddy agricultural flatlands in a resolute monochrome, Sátántangó shouldn't be watched back-to-back with, say, Speed; if the shock didn't kill you outright, you'd almost certainly succumb to the moviegoer's equivalent of the bends.
As an experiment in screen time, and just how immersive the film experience can be, Tarr's film makes Céline and Julie Go Boating seem a breeze at half the length. What the director's imitators (yes, that means you, Gus van Sant) haven't quite grasped is how these experiments don't circumscribe a properly satisfying telling of stories. From its chapter headings onwards, the film is unapologetically novelistic in its description of a community where nothing much happens except it rains.
Tarr devotes at least thirty minutes to introduce each of the characters dancing with the devil, where a conventional feature would in only one or two scenes, ten minutes tops. Here, then, are squabbling business partners Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Schmidt (László Lugossy), one cuckolding the other. Here is the returning poet Irimias (local rock star Mihály Víg), in whose florid turn of phrase the villagers come to place far too much trust. And here's the grumpy doctor and unofficial town chronicler Orvos (Peter Berling), whose trip out to replenish his stocks of pear brandy turns into an epic quest, and sets up the film's magnificently sardonic punchline.
During its second third, Sátántangó begins to circle around on itself, repeatedly returning to a nightmarish gathering in the village pub, like an incorrigible alcoholic. Accordion music plays as though on a loop; one local staggers about balancing a bread roll on his forehead; and even the spiders start to conspire against these characters. As visions of human futility go, it's right up there; the circularity, in this instance, is infernal. The death of an innocent while most of the villagers are in this state of inebriation seems to set up a murder-mystery, but Tarr instead scatters his principals further, turning them into refugees and immigrants in a way that chimes with events elsewhere in Eastern Europe at the time of the film's production.
Yes, it's tough-going in places - a cinema that exposes characters and viewers alike to the elements, the K2 of film - and an experience for which you may need to train yourself. (Tarr's comparatively accessible Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation - his Snowdon and Ben Nevis, if you like - are available as a DVD double-pack.) But this director has a remarkable eye for the halls and corridors of bureaucracy, rainy-grey mornings, empty town squares and the ways bored children find to kill time, and the characters - cursed by fate, squabbling over money, scared and superstitious; people who, even when in groups, seem to be ploughing their own lonely furrow, waiting for God-only-knows what - aren't so very far removed from you and I. It takes a while to get there, obviously, but the view from the top is unlike anything else in the movies.
Sátántangó is streaming at Curzon Home Cinema, and available on Blu-Ray through Curzon Artificial Eye.