MIFF09 review: KATALIN VARGA (dir. Peter Strickland)


Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

Katalin Varga marks the feature film debut of British director Peter Strickland. At 35, Strickland is not particularly young for a newcomer, and so perhaps it is no surprise to learn, as one does from just watching the first few minutes of the film, that he has already learnt his craft extremely well. What is surprising, and which only becomes apparent gradually through watching the film, is that Strickland is not just extremely competent for a new filmmaker, but that he possesses an astonishingly assured, distinctive visual style and a sophisticated, occasionally devastating capacity with sound.

Filmed and set entirely in the rural wilds of Romania, Katalin Varga chronicles a journey taken by the title character and her son, Orban, after Katalin’s husband banishes them from their home following a scandalous discovery about his wife’s past. It doesn’t take long for the nature of this discovery, and the true nature of Katalin’s journey, to reveal themselves; once they do, the generic character of the film and the events to come is revealed just as quickly: this is to be a ‘rape-revenge’ film, a murderous voyage in search of two men who raped our heroine and thus annulled the possibility for her to ever achieve an innocent, pure union with her husband and child.

If one expects Strickland’s distinctive vision to be manifested through playing with the conventions of the rape-revenge genre, by making striking and disturbing additions or omissions or maneuvers, or by self-consciously ‘drawing attention’ to generic ‘devices,’ as so many textbook accounts of genre in contemporary cinema outline, one is likely to be disappointed. Strickland lets us know early on what kind of film this is, and dwells at great length on the particular moments that construct that generic identity, but he is less interested in genre in itself than in what genre can do, its capacity to construct archetypes and through them to explore, in a highly concentrated form, the ways in which human beings inhabit the world and interact. By announcing from the beginning roughly how its narrative is going to unfold, Katalin Varga invites us to delve intensely into the physical and psychological spaces its characters occupy, to think seriously about questions of motive, personhood, cause and effect in ways that neither generically ‘playful’ nor straightforwardly ‘realistic’ renditions of the same kind of story would allow.

Of course, it’s one thing to make a film that forces the audience to ‘slow down’ and pay attention to the physical environment and the psychological state its characters inhabit; quite another to do this in a way that is powerful and lasting. Strickland, with his restless but assured camera moving in an almost constant horizontal line and his sound palette rendering every crackling twig and every gurgling body of water in scenes that positively throb, achieves this intensity in spades. Because of this sensually rich, ‘affective’ formal quality, and because of Strickland’s fixation upon the darkest of human desires and emotions, the most immediate comparison I can find for his film is the work of Philippe Grandrieux. While Katalin Varga cannot be said to be an achievement of the order of Grandrieux’s first feature, Sombre, that comparison allows us to imagine an exciting path Strickland’s career may follow. A welcome riposte to the dreadful, morally ugly popular revenge films of recent years like Kill Bill and Oldboy, Katalin Varga marks Peter Strickland as a name to remember.

1 Comment

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One response to “MIFF09 review: KATALIN VARGA (dir. Peter Strickland)

  1. I see you do have a different opinion to mine. You mention that Strickland is a first-time director, and to me it shows. The film has merit, but doesn’t quite work for me. Maybe some of my problems with it are that I took it on face value. When Katalin said she was going to her mother’s, I believed her. If she was going in search of revenge, that changes it somewhat, but doesn’t alter the impossible odds of those she was seeking to hook up with her.

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