Egy Hét Pesten és Bud√É¬°n
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 15 January 2008
Source Second Run DVD
What brings a director to revisit characters and the actors that play them from an earlier period in his or her filmmaking career? There may be a need to redefine what those characters represented in the earlier film, to provide some sort of final summary in terms of the director’s changing understanding of the characters and themes, of the social/political changes that have occurred since, and of changes in the director’s own filmmaking practice. This is the sense, for example, of Ingmar Bergman’s magisterial Saraband, where he returned to Johan and Marianne, the protagonists of one of his greatest international successes, Scenes from a Marriage.
Of course, there are less exalted reasons for this strategy. It can be the means for a director who has hit an artistic and economic slough to reconnect with the successes of his/her past. Why, otherwise, did Francis Coppola make the flaccid and supremely unnecessary Godfather Part III? Wim Wenders, too, offered a recent, weak variation on this phenomenon with Don’t Come Knockin’, a rather sad attempt to revisit Paris, Texas, where Sam Shepard, the source for Paris’ screenplay, was drafted in this time as the lead actor.
Károly Makk’s A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda falls somewhere in between these two extremes. In his case, he’s reconnecting with what is generally considered to be his greatest film, Love, made more than thirty years before but set another fifteen years before in the even more repressive fifties. Interestingly enough, the impetus for the film didn’t originate with Makk himself but with English producer Marc Vlessing. They’d made an English-language film together, The Gambler, and Vlessing was keen now to produce a Hungarian-language film with Makk. He was particularly interested in exploring the connections between the contemporary post-Communist world and the Communist past, an area that he felt modern East European films were neglecting. I guess, given the plotline in A Long Weekend, that Vlessing’s interest was in the acts of betrayal that were required to survive under Communism, and in particular the betrayal involved in collaboration with the security services. Countless cases of this kind have been uncovered since the fall of Communism, often involving leading contemporary politicians (for example, two Hungarian prime ministers of the nineties), and these cases have also arisen among artists and writers. There was an enormous controversy in Germany in the early nineties when it was revealed that Christa Wolf, the most renowned novelist to come out of the Communist G.D.R., had acted for a short period of time as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda uses the same two lead actors from Love, Iván Darvas and Mari Törõcsik, although apparently the idea of using extracts from Love as flashbacks came from Makk’s editor and was not initially built into the structure of the film. In Love Darvas had played János, a political prisoner, and Törõcsik his wife Luca, who almost collapses under the strain of keeping up appearances both towards the outside world and towards her invalid mother-in-law. It’s a subtle and moving film that, through its fractured editing style, burrows deep into the emotional situation, and in its final section offers a kind of redemption for its characters in the love that János and Luca redefine for one another upon János’ release.
In A Long Weekend Darvas’ and Törõcsik’s characters bear their own names, Iván and Mari, but in spite of this – and in spite of Makk’s insistence that there are subtle differences between the characters in the two films – we should essentially read them as the same. Iván is now a dapper and refined elderly gentleman, a retired businessman living in a wealthy mansion in Lugano with his English wife. (Truth to be told, these scenes with his wife, played by Eileen Atkins, seem rather forced, suffering from the lack of conviction – or confidence? – you often get from English-language scenes in foreign-language European films.) Here, Iván gets a call from Hungary, telling him that Mari is seriously ill in hospital, and he decides to return to Budapest, the capital city formed from the Buda and Pest of the film’s title that lie on opposing sides of the River Danube. It’s Iván’s first return to his native country since his escape decades before, and it’s obviously with mixed, conflicted feelings that he stages this return. But it’s equally significant that he doesn’t tell his English wife of his plans to return before his actual departure, a sign of the estrangement and tension between them, or at the very least of her inability to understand why he would want to return to the country that treated him so badly.
The film seems to be leading to the reuniting of the two lovers Iván and Mari, but things never quite develop this way. It’s partly because of the revelations Mari has in store for Iván, firstly her own collaboration with the authorities and her involvement in, indeed responsibility for his imprisonment, and then the news that he is the father of her daughter Anna. In a sense Mari’s betrayal of Iván – which, it should be added, was never intentional – is replicated in Makk’s betrayal of the original audience of Love, in his almost cynical refutation of the earlier film’s lyricism, romanticism, and idealism. But it’s also true that Makk never really focuses on the dilemmas that Mari suffered in the past or any guilt or remorse she may feel in the present, just as he never makes Mari central to the story of A Long Weekend in the way that Luca was in Love. This is a pity as Mari Törõcsik never ends up being used in the film as much as she might have been. You can be very conscious of this when considering what may well be the film’s best scene, when Mari sits alone in her hospital room, effectively abandoned by Iván and Anna, and applies makeup to her face. The whole scene is suffused with the grace, elegance, and beauty that the actress brings to it.
The impulse on producer Vlessing’s part for making this film may have been the desire to document the betrayals and moral failings of the past, but to be honest Makk hardly seems interested in this. More at issue for him is a distaste for the Hungary of the present. Hungary’s new, post-Communist age is one of crass materialism, whose drift in values – epitomised by Anna’s ex-boyfriend – hardly seems an advance on the political repression of the Communist era. The modern age is also an unstable one, prone to sudden, irrational acts of violence, such as the pedestrian rage witnessed by Iván. A man almost knocked down by a careless woman driver pulls out a gun and fires into the windscreen. (Here, coincidence is stretched a little too much—the woman victim turns out to be Iván’s own daughter.) Makk exploits this violent subtext at the end of the film when the now contrite gunman and his victim meet again outside the bank where Iván is to change money. Anna’s ex-boyfriend is working inside, underlining the intertwining of the business and criminal worlds, and the whole scene literally explodes with a drive-by machine-gunning. It’s rather overblown and out of keeping with the low-key character-based drama of the film, but it does stress the violence and insecurities of contemporary Hungarian society. It also makes a clear linkage between past and present through the figure of a former Communist security officer, a man intimately involved in Iván and Mari’s story, who is seen as someone still a powerbroker, still working behind the scenes.
But in the end A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda is not the story of the reunion of Iván and Mari, or even so much the story of Iván’s confrontation with the Hungary of the present and of the past. Rather it’s the story of Iván’s encounter with his daughter Anna, and the way they manoeuvre around one another, getting closer and pulling away, getting the measure of and learning to love one another. Hence, it’s a story that leaves Mari on the outside. It never adopts Love’s very productive technique of switching narrative interest from one partner to the other, perhaps to Weekend’s ultimate disadvantage. The film’s perspective is always that of Iván’s. His final rejection of Hungary is accompanied by the loss, in different forms, of his lover from the past and his wife in the present, but the film refuses to leave him so bereft, offering him through the reconnection with his daughter a release from the pain of his past.