Posted February 26, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

Turin Horse: Why is the European Male Avant-Garde So Depressed as of Late?

It’s quite the season for ambitious but disappointing high-art cinema in New York. On the heels of Nuri Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” comes the NY release of the highly avant-garde “The Turin Horse,” from Hungarian bad boy Bela Tarr. The two films have a lot in common.

In my write-up on “Anatolia,” I described it as dirge-like. “Turin Horse” is even more funereal. Whereas “Anatolia” depicted human society in tatters, “Turin Horse” contemplates the end of life itself, much as Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” did, a third dirge-like high-art film on the worldwide festival circuit in 2011. Why is the European male avant-garde so depressed as of late — and why are their films so disappointing?

“The Turin Horse” is set in the late 19th century, in a very remote corner of Hungary. A middle-aged male peasant and his adult daughter live alone. Their only livestock is a horse. These three creatures go about their daily life with their heads down, performing one mundane task after another and eating one meal a day. The horse eats hay; the humans eat (with their hands) one boiled potato per day. Tarr has us watch them eat on several occasions. Rarely have humans been compared to livestock more effectively.

But something is very strange in this world. An enormous wind storm makes it almost impossible to go outdoors. The long opening sequence shows the man and horse struggling to travel along a muddy dirt road with the massive gale at their faces. Eventually they make it back to their hovel, where the daughter silently feeds them and gets them ready for bed. The next morning, the wind hasn’t died down at all.

Lucky us, we get to watch these wretched creatures wordlessly go about their daily routines for a couple more hours (total running time is two-and-a-half hours) while a short, annoying piece of dissonant music plays ceaselessly on the soundtrack. It resembles the sound of sick cows whining (or over-educated male intellectuals whining about their lives lacking fulfillment). I think this piece of music plays about 50 times, adding to the Chinese-water-torture quality of the film. Also on the mind-numbing soundtrack: the incessant sound of the wind.

A couple things happen at the end of “Turin Horse” that break the monotony and provide some dramatic resolution. I won’t give away the details, but there is a change in the weather finally — not for the better.

Awkwardly wrapped around this maddeningly minimalist film (which is shot in black-and-white, incidentally) is a contemplation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous breakdown in 1889 at about the age of 45 when he was visiting the Italian city of Turin.

As legend has it, the quasi-demonic philosopher witnessed a horse being brutally whipped by its owner. In a fit of rage and pathos, it is said, Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse, sobbing inconsolably. Unable to (or refusing to) regain lucidity, he was taken to a mental hospital and never returned to normal life. He remained in the daily care of relatives for the last 10 years of his life, considered to be mentally ill. For decades it was thought his mental breakdown was caused by syphilis, but that has been drawn into question recently.

Tarr didn’t just title the film in a way to refer to Nietzsche’s demise, he also begins the film with a narration that describes the philosopher’s breakdown in Turin.

Tarr may not be a great artist, but he is an authentic one. (I would say the same of the other European male filmmakers named above, Nuri Ceylan and Lars von Trier.) Thus there are some interesting things to contemplate here. On one level, it seems that Tarr is breaking away from bourgeois civilization or rational civilization in a way that reminds him of Nietzsche’s experience.

On another level, it seems that Tarr feels that capitalist civilization is literally destroying life, a sentiment I certainly share, at least on some levels and at some times. But while there are interesting ideas behind the project, “Turin Horse” doesn’t capture these ideas very well. Spending two hours watching livestock (human and otherwise) on a death march is not artistically enriching for me. I’d rather spend that two hours reading Nietzsche’s “Antichrist.”

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.