Working Girl: Márta Mészáros
This article appeared in the January 21, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)
Around the late 1980s, the Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros was contemplating making a movie about Marilyn Monroe. It would have been new territory. Her best-known movies had until then centered not on the lives of the famous but on women caught up in private, churning dramas: factory workers negotiating friendships and love affairs, orphans in search of family, women trapped or poisoned by their proximity to power. And yet when she expanded on her idea to the scholar Catherine Portuges, she cast Monroe not as an antithesis to those women but as a kind of model for the struggles they waged. “Like many of Mészáros’s protagonists,” Portuges wrote, Monroe had been “the product of orphanages and foster homes” from which she inherited a fierce independence. “It’s as if she had wanted to take revenge on the world because of it, take everything she needed for herself,” Mészáros told Portuges in an interview. “Her life was not unlike the lives of saints, always in pursuit of love… She didn’t trust men, and she never believed that anyone really loved her—neither men, women, nor money.”
She could have been describing Erzsi, the title character in her debut feature The Girl (1968), who grows up in an orphanage and sets out in her twenties to find the mother she never knew; or the recently widowed Edit, who rattles around her family’s forbidding homes looking for an exit in Binding Sentiments (1969); or Kata, the middle-aged heroine of Adoption (1975), who resolves to adopt when her married lover refuses to give her a child; or Juli, the young factory laborer at the center of Nine Months (1976), who breaks up with her abusive boyfriend and has their child on her own; or the Juli of the autobiographical Diary trilogy (1984, 1987, and 1990), an orphaned young woman who hurls herself against the state apparatuses of late Stalinism. The films rely on an arsenal of devices—wide landscape shots, tight close-ups, freeze-frames—to put these women in a kind of wary isolation, as if they had no one to count on but themselves.
Mészáros, who turned 90 last year, is having a moment. Over the past half-decade, the Hungarian National Film Archive has restored 11 of her films. (They screen this week and next at Film at Lincoln Center, after stops last year in Bergamo and London.) Among them are her first seven features, made in an incredible nine-year run between 1968 and 1977: these are the thickly textured portraits of love affairs, workdays, and friendships between women that made her reputation. The Diary trilogy, in contrast, shows Mészáros in her historical mode. Speckled with flashbacks, dreams, and fragments of found footage, it is an imaginative recreation of the first two decades of her life: the arrest and murder of her father, a sculptor, in Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet purges of the 1930s; her mother’s subsequent death; her tense rapport with her Party-affiliated foster mother; and her decision in her early twenties to study filmmaking at VGIK in Moscow, where she overlapped in the mid-1950s with Otar Iosseliani and Andrei Tarkovsky.
She went back to Hungary after graduating—she arrived amidst the wreckage of the crushed 1956 revolution, the subject of the furious third Diary film—and started making documentary shorts in Budapest and Bucharest. In her interview with Portuges, Mészáros spoke about that period, during which she also began her 13-year marriage to the director Miklós Jancsó, with pragmatic candor: “My family was so poor. Work was absolutely necessary for me.” It would be more than a decade before she made her first narrative feature, The Girl. When she did, she combined her documentary training with the visual and sonic vernacular of the decade’s international new waves. She cast the singer Kati Kovács in the lead role and scattered the movie with rock songs. Her first three features—The Girl, Binding Sentiments, and Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls!—were, among other things, portraits of an emerging counterculture.
In interviews, Mészáros comes off as something of a staunch liberal individualist, allergic to power and control. (“I hate power, any kind of power,” she told journalist Ruth Schneider in 2019.) Readings of her work often stress the proud independence her heroines achieve from the manipulative, inadequate, and brittle men who surround them. And yet the people with whom they share their lives—co-workers, fellow boarders, neighbors—tug at the edges of the movies. Every person in front of the camera is a potential new center of gravity, pulling the film into a temporary new configuration and giving it an elastic form.
These are movies haunted by a question the scholar Alex Woloch has asked about the 19th-century novel: “How can a human being enter into a narrative world and not disrupt the system of attention?” When Edit (Mari Töröcsik) slips away from the supervision of her controlling son and his conflicted fiancée to spend an afternoon with a neighbor and her daughter in Binding Sentiments, the movie expands to linger on the three women as they drink, talk, and take turns singing. During one of the many performance scenes that fill the extraordinary rock musical Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls! (1970), on-screen photographers take flash snapshots of the concertgoers in a dark venue. Mészáros’s camera slips in and out of the photographers’ perspective, isolating listeners—a mustachioed teen bobbing his head; a young woman gazing distractedly over her shoulder—as they light up briefly in the glare and collapse back into the dark, a catalogue of fleeting portraits. Mészáros loves this kind of intimate portraiture: the last shot in Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls! is a suspended close-up of the protagonist, another Juli (Jaroslava Schallerová), in bed with her new husband, her face alternately flickering with happiness and clouding over with fear.
Mészáros’s fondness for shots in which a single face fills the frame exists in dynamic tension with her commitment to showing as many faces as possible. (In this, too, her movies resemble the realist novels Woloch thought were at once “enchanted with the freestanding individual” and “infused with the sense that any character is a potential hero.”) She challenged herself to pick out as many faces as possible in spaces that anonymized them: dormitories, hostels, concerts, dances. She returned with particular frequency to the factory floor: the textile mill where Erzsi works in The Girl; the brick factory that becomes a molten backdrop for the affair between Juli (Lili Monori) and her abusive foreman (Jan Nowicki) in Nine Months; the woodworking plant to which Kata (Katalin Berek) reports in Adoption. There, her signature close-ups become ways to stall the absorption of individual workers into streamlined processes of production; in Adoption, she renders Kata’s work as a flurry of dust-caked elbows and hands.
The way Mészáros’s camera fans out its attention—lingering over briefly glimpsed people; scanning group scenes in close-up rather than capturing them at a distance—has an echo in her plots. Even as they stress the defiant self-reliance of the women at their centers, her films insist that other women have the power to make or break it. Adoption begins and ends with Kata on her own, but much of the film details her fragile intimacy with Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a much younger woman she befriends at a nearby youth reformatory. In The Two of Them (1977), the director of a hostel for working women finds herself reevaluating her life and marriage under the influence of a new friendship with one of her mercurial young boarders. Solidarity can also be a front for exploitation in Mészáros’s world: the power contests that fill these early films curdle in The Heiresses (1980) into a sour narrative of abuse and betrayal between two women living in the shadow of the right-wing regime in 1930s Budapest.
Occasionally Mészáros’s heroines end up face-to-face with the unnamed, anonymous people with whom they’ve been competing for the camera’s attention. It unnerves them. When Kata visits Anna’s state-run juvenile home to look for her in Adoption, she finds herself instead confronted by dozens of other young women. We follow her as she goes from room to room, attracting direct, penetrating gazes, with each one drawing the camera into a force field of its own. For a moment, she seems to recognize the sheer number of “potential heroes” on whom a film can turn. Being a protagonist under these conditions is an anxious, unstable position, not unlike being a movie star and wondering what made you so special. Maybe Mészáros took an interest in Marilyn Monroe because she saw what Jacqueline Rose, in a 2012 essay for The London Review of Books, described as Monroe’s urge to stay connected to the people from whom fame had set her off. At one point, Rose quotes a fragmentary cluster of notes Monroe drafted in 1962. It is not hard to grasp what Mészáros might have seen in them: “The lack of any consistent love and caring. A mistrust and fear of the world was the result. There were no benefits except what it could teach me about the basic needs of the young, the sick and the weak.”
Max Nelson wrote the Restoration Row column for Film Comment between 2013 and 2020. He studies English at Yale.