Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s decision to adapt a novel by the late Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon is nothing if not ironic. Simenon was wildly prolific and created tightly paced tales, while Tarr—well, you know. Sátántangó? Werckmeister Harmonies? If you IMDb Simenon, Tarr emerges as the clear database loser—by a long shot: 173 entries to Tarr’s 14. But in The Man from London Tarr achieves an uncanny re-creation of Simenon’s stifling atmosphere, oddly blacked-out characters, and dead-end narrative style. Here, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), a nighttime train-station operator, witnesses a murder and with a little cunning nets a suitcase filled with money in the aftermath. If this is a windfall, you’d never tell from his expression. Through the entire course of the film he looks as if he’s just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The “plot” involves whether or not the rightful owner of the money will get it back and whether there is such a thing as rightful ownership of money in the first place. The main locations are Maloin’s prison-like watchtower, the grim apartment he shares with his mentally disturbed daughter and stressed-out wife (a bizarrely cast Tilda Swinton), a pub/boardinghouse, and the beleaguered environs of a coastal town that wants to say “somewhere in Eastern Europe” but can’t summon the energy or willpower to do so. The camera is quintessential Tarr: hovering in anticipation of things that won’t happen, tracking like a private eye tailing a perp, and imbuing the black-and-white image with a caustic malaise no other director comes near to achieving.
The festival-circuit party line has proclaimed The Man from London as subpar Tarr. So what? Surely the counterargument is that minor Tarr is superior to most other things. Opportunities to experience his work on the big screen are few and far between. And to deny audiences the chance to see a new one is a crime that not even Simenon would savor.
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