Monday, August 24, 2015

Electra, My Love

Miklós Jancsó adapted the stageplay by L. Gyurkó, Szerelmem, Elektra, into the 1974 film Electra, My Love. The film is very watchable as cinema ... for some viewers (to judge by the reviews!). As a usage of classical mythology it is quite remarkable. Its 71 minutes constitute one of my best Netflix rentals in an active year.

The narrative adapts the Orestes myth to the milieu of Soviet-occupied, post-1956 Hungary so as to incite in the audience’s minds active emulation of classical role models who risked dire consequences to revolt against pervasive tyranny. When Gyurkó wrote the play in 1968, a little more than a decade had passed since the failed revolution of 1956, which the Russians quashed. In the film's present, it has been fifteen years since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and now ten years since the queen herself passed away. Aegisthus rules a populace that proclaims felicity, and Aegisthus is a tyrant who willingly admits to Electra the necessity of bloody discipline: "Roads must be paved with skulls and walls plastered with cries. I don't like blood, Electra. But it buys order."

The film opens with an allusion to Sophocles' Electra. Chryosthemis urges Electra to forget and move on. Because Sophocles instituted the character of Chrysothemis, we expect the narrative to unfold along Sophoclean lines. The film, however, scarcely follows that anticipated path. For Sophocles' drama focuses on the psychology of a daughter who will kill her mother in the name of justice. Jancsó's telling has another directive to deliver. Revolution and regime-change are the message here, not the standard fare for an oresteia. Indeed, in Aeschylus' hands the message of the oresteia was all about reconciliation. With Gyurkó and Jancsó the last Tantalids are all about revolution. Neither sibling is actually capable of contriving tyrannicide alone; but, their dynamic combination achieves the necessary energy that eliminates Aegisthus and his cronies.

Cinematically, too, the film is remarkable. 71 minutes are covered by about one ten principle shots, each about as lengthy as a mid-70's film processing could manage. [See listing below.]  Jancsó opens this film with a remarkable "oner" 11-minute shot. It sets the cinematic tone for the film. Essentially, Jancsó shoots each section of each act in one shot. Like paragraph markings in a book, or scenery changes on a stage, the cuts mark strophes in this elaborate orchestration. A tremendous amount of orchestration has gone into every single shot. More like an analogue ballet than an edited film, the Jancsó’s visual narrative involves tremendously precise blocking from sometimes hundreds of actors and not a few dozen wild horses. It’s pretty stunning. The first very long sequence constitutes orchestration of several dozen actors, two glimpses at the setting sun, the wrangling of a herd of wild horses, the choreography of a lean swordsman, three dwarves with cymbals, and about 40 lines of dialogue between Electra, Aegisthus, and his deputy tyrannt. The opening sequence will leave no doubt in any viewer's mind: we are definitely not in Kansas here. This is an artsy film.

You can get an appreciation for this blocking in Richard Brody’s New Yorker online clip from 24 August 2010, which shows about half the opening shot. (See the link on my OGCMA slide.)

A ministrel with a folk guitar constantly crisscrosses the film. He is a balladeer with a song about Orestes' epic return. Mind you, the hero is not named in the song. But the foreboding arrival of the revolutionary is going to be as monumental as it is going to be epic.  The minstrel sings:
Though cornered, he stayed alive.
A master at this game. 
Lost warrriors greet him. 

Stones ask me, grass implores me
People come to me crying
and shatter the rock of my wanderings.
Fiery steeds stand before the sun and the moon. 
I'll take their manes
to make a scarlet cloak
Swallows shoot the dawn
By the time I get my freedom.
the gate I'll open wide,
And break the wagon of bondage. 
The stranger is familiar
yet we know him not. 

We knew from afar it was him.  
We know his horse's step.
Lost warriors greeet him. 
See him alone on the plain. 
The people await him. 
D'you hear his horse's steps?
It can only be him.

The people await him....
It can only be him.

     Elektra, My Love is all about justice. But it is also about the politics of revolution. Electra's alter-ego is an attractive brunette in the sheer blouse (Mária Bajcsay) who administers the message of the party's leaders. Kikiáltó, "the Herald", is this character's name in the film's credits. She enters the film with reports of Agamemnon's murder, fifteen years ago. In an orchestrated account of local political history she chants the story of Agamemnon's demise. "Since then the people are happy." And  nobody would deny it — not openly, at any rate, given the iron-fisted support she musters. Men crack whips and long lines of the people voice their support, after Kikiáltó reminds them of dire punishments that await those who resist. This is the annual feast day of Agamemnon's death and Aegisthus' rise to power. And she presents Electra to the assembled people at the moment where the regime expects her to recant. When Electra proclaims, instead, the full truth of her belief in the regime's corruption, they stop their ears. Today will bring change, Electra vows; but it will not transpire before we behold the regime's lies.

You may not feel like watching it, because there is a good deal of female nudity in it (and some male nudity, as well). The nudity makes the film unusable in a BYU context, but it needn’t render the film unwatchable for a discerning viewer. For, the film's use of nudity is largely de-eroticized. The disclosure of the human body — primarily female in Jancsó's treatement — illustrates the depravity of the regime that fosters it. When the tyrants themselves are compelled to dance naked, their weakness is most overtly manifest. Electra, on the other hand, is fully covered in a dark dress throughout the film, wrists to neckline clothed in a dark dress.

       The Herald's quasi-erotic affinity for the Chief (Vezér; played by Lajos Balázsovits), the handsome young man in the linen frock. Though nude women appear  frequently throughout this film, one fully nude male only appears. After the regime change and under the administration of Electra, the Chief is compelled to serve naked and dance with his Herald. The nudity they earlier inflicted upon countless others now symbolizes the humility to which Electra so dearly subjects them. Later Orestes clothes them before administering his form of justice. Whether the Herald is also killed is left unclear, but the Chief certainly falls.

The concluding scene is kind of weird. Every talks about it. Reminiscence of a Euripidean deus ex machina is certainly there, when a red helicopter intrudes upon the a-chronistic landscape the director has contrived for the audience. Only a handgun had broken the illusion, quite late in the film. Besides that ... and the helicopter! ... Electra's collision with Aegisthus has occured in a world altogether devoid of machinery. The ending is all a bit jarring. As the revolutionary protagonists, Electra and Orestes, rise in a symbolic resurrection and the people sing a hymn of the Phoenix bird, the prospects of Soviet-style socialists seem to wane. By the film's last frames, Electra and Orestes exude a confidence and optimism that suggests their audience might someday succeed in rising above the tyranny that has held them down for so long.

Electra, My Love is distributed on DVD by Facets Multimedia. I might expect Criterion to have picked it up first. The disc would benefit from the inclusion of such historical commentary as Criterion might arrange.

If you get a chance to see Electra, My Love (1974, Miklos Jancsó = Szerelmem, Elektra) is an astonishing usage of classical mythology. And the Hungarian play from which the film is adapted would seem to warrant an English translation. I have located German and French translations, but no English published translation of the Gyurkó play.

—— RTM

The oners:
11:15 - 20:25
22:45 - 32:00
40:50 - 42:00 (electra smiles at the camera)
42:00 - 43:30 horses in twilight — regime change
43:30 - 46:25
46:30 - 54:00 the ballet of the Herald and the Chief, approach of the ball pushed by horses, discussion with Orestes, arrival and song of the minstrel
54:00 -  1:01    Begins with Aegisthus on a gigantic ball, execution, "This story is at an end", piano music, Orestes and Electra wander away from the camera zigzagging, numerous corpses strewn on the field, , Our story's just starting", starting each day anew, they are covered by a shroud,
1:01 - end epilogue: Orestes and Electra are up and walking, smiling, embracing, arrival of helicopter — discussion of the firebird and its fomenting of revolution