Free Fall: Jeonju Review
Hungarian auteur György Pálfi's entry to the three-feature Jeonju Digital Project offers a portmanteau of bizarre goings-on in apartments in a tenement block.
Having long taking shape start as a portmanteau of three shorts from various filmmakers – past participants include Bong Joon-ho, Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weersathakul and Claire Denis – the Jeonju International Film Festival's now 14-year-old self-produced venture has just been upgraded this year into a tri-feature series. Somehow ironically, kicking off the latest edition of Jeonju Digital Project is Gyorgy Pálfi's Free Fall, which is – strangely – a portmanteau of individual short stories.
One wonders whether anybody has told Pálfi about the project's change in trajectory - but not that it might matter anyway, given how the omnibus has become the Hungarian auteur's aesthetics of choice: there's the epoch-spanning socio-historical comedy Taxidermia (2006), the multi-vignette relationship drama I Am Not Your Friend (2009), and finally the hyper-collage of classic film imagery of the Cannes out-of-competition entry Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen (2012). It's a style which runs the risk of inconsistency; and Free Fall – a quickly-conceived and executed production shot and finished in just under three months – is indeed uneven, with fully-formed segments standing alongside half-baked ideas.
Just as the world – well, cinephiles at least – await Pálfi's long-gestated historical epic Toldi, Free Fall still offers some fun and distraction, which depicts alienated human relationships in jest. The fact that the eight stories unfold in various genre registers – sci-fi, sitcom, social-realism among them – adds amusement to proceedings heightened by Imola Láng's innovatively-imagined production designs. After its world premiere at the Jeonju festival in South Korea on May 3, a sustained festival run is basically assured, but it's difficult to see the film attains the niche-release breakthrough of Taxidermia or even Pálfi's absurdist black-and-white debut Hukkle (2001).
The film's title alludes – literally, at least – to the plunge of a pensioner (played by veteran stage, film and TV actress Piroska Molnár) from the top of a tenement block. Living with her crabby and reactionary husband (Miklós Bened) – who damns peppermint tea as a bogus concoction, drones on and on about food prices, and sees everybody around him as a thief – the unnamed woman takes her shopping cart and bag of recycled bottles up to the roof and then just jumps.
Incredibly, she doesn't die – picking up her glasses and shattered belongings, she heads back into the building, with the out-of-order elevator forcing her to make her way back home by climbing the stairs. In what is easily a symbolic journey up a purgatorial tower, the woman passes through a variety of doors on different floors – with strange goings-on unfolding behind each of them.
No longer as explicitly political as Taxidermia, Pálfi has chosen to follow the undercurrent which drives I Am Not Your Friend and even Final Cut: Free Fall is as much about social values in freefall as it is about the disintegration of love as a natural concept. Indeed, one of the key utterances of the film's anchor character is how her husband "never loved". Life's slipping away, as if she's saying, but love has been struck off the equation.
Whereas Final Cut sees Pálfi piecing other people's images – individual shots borrowed from Hitchock, Godard and Avatar, among others –to form his own narrative, Free Fall is the filmmaker breaking his own thematic into different components, and expanding some of the genre handles which he used to mix up within a single narrative in his previous work.
So on the first floor there's the hostess of a party feeling like her wheeler-dealer husband's trophy wife as she is forced to mingle with his mouldy, boring, pragmatic guests; a man whose extreme obsession with order generates a domestic life where rude health is sacrosanct, physical intimacy is a no-go area and no one should be spared if his strictly-controlled regime is at risk. And then there's also the two stories about regression: one about a mother who takes to extreme measures to reverse her childbirth, and the other when a boy who desperately tries to escape his tyrannous father's wrath.
These are the moments which work, with the employment of various modes of mise-en-scene and camerawork heightening the feelings of the various segments. It is when explicit humor takes centerstage that Free Fall flounders: the gaudy segment about a threesome – which Pálfi seems to be a nod to Korean sitcoms, perhaps in line with the film's status as a Korean-Hungarian-French co-production – looks awkward, as is the part in which a new-age guru encourages people to (literally) run into walls with pseudo-spiritual babble about a Hungarian's "duty" of "keeping the heart chakra open" and his mission of bringing peace and love to the world (while condemning a levitating pupil as showing "vanity of vanities").
As the film concludes with If I Can Dream, the Walter Earl Brown-penned 1969 number articulating despair and dismay about the eclipse of progress and hope in the light of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It's clearly a move to mirror the freefall in the United States' social fabric to the descent of human bonding in 21st century Hungary and beyond: but it's a point Pálfi conveyed only partly successfully here. A better and more coherent fantasy next time, perhaps.
Venue: Press screening, Jeonju International Film Festival, May 2, 2014
Production Companies: Jeonju International Film Festival, KHM Film and Popfilm
Director: György Pálfi
Cast: Piroska Molnár, Miklós Bened, Tamás Jordan
Producer: Ferenc Pusztai
Executive Producers: Ko Suk-man, Kim Young-jin, Jang Byung-won
Screenwriters: György Pálfi, Zsófi Ruttkay
Director of Photography: Gergely Pohárnok
Art Director: Imola Láng
Editor: Réka Lemhénhyi
Music: Amon Tobin