'Kincsem — Bet on Revenge': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Skyfilm Studio
Fiddler on the hoof.

Hungarian director Gabor Herendi’s homegrown blockbuster is a lavish period melodrama based on the true story of a legendary race horse.

A record-breaking film about a record-breaking horse, Kincsem is Hungary’s most expensive domestic production to date and the biggest homegrown box-office hit of the last 10 years, eclipsing admission figures for such recent Hollywood imports as Fifty Shades Darker and Logan. Full of torrid passions, blazing saddles and thundering hooves, Gabor Herendi’s $10 million historical pageant was screened for market buyers in Cannes as a kind of spicy side dish to Hungary’s strong showing in the official festival program.

Herendi uses a true story of sporting glory as the backdrop to a fictionalized romantic romp set at the peak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A household name in Hungary, Kincsem was the most successful thoroughbred racehorse in history. Sired by a stallion owned by Queen Victoria, she became a sensation across Europe and a personal favorite of the Austrian emperor Franz Josef, winning all 54 of her races before retiring in 1879. Budapest’s main horse racing track now bears her name.

A garish fancy-dress party of colorful costumes and operatic set-pieces, Kincsem at times resembles an extended 1980s Europop video. Global demand for Hungarian-language period blockbusters is clearly limited, but horse-racing aficionados familiar with the real story may find their interest piqued, while the film’s ostentatious depiction of high-society decadence in 19th century Europe could amass a camp cult following in the longer term. These are guilty pleasures, of course, but all the best pleasures are.

A scene-setting sequence climaxes with the execution of aristocratic horse trainer Sandor Blaskovich (Zoltan Ratoti) by his former military comrade Count Otto von Oettingen (Tibor Gaspar) over a failed coup plot. Blaskovich’s newly orphaned son Erno (Monori Dominik) is stripped of his fortune and exiled from the palatial family mansion, which von Oettingen claims as official reward for his services to the emperor.

Jumping forward more than 20 years, adult Erno (Ervin Nagy) is now a womanizing, duel-fighting, dandyish playboy who frequents Budapest’s finest brothels and opera houses despite being perpetually broke. He scrapes a living by buying and betting on racehorses, but typically loses more than he wins. A flirtatious encounter with von Oettingen’s spirited daughter Klara (Andrea Petrik) pricks Erno’s interest, but his scandalous reputation precedes him and she rebuffs him repeatedly. Inevitably, by the cast-iron rules of such plots, the mutual tension between Erno and Klara soon turns to erotic sizzle followed by vigorous fornication in candlelit hunting lodges.

Meanwhile, Erno dedicates himself to training Kincsem, an apparently untamable mare presented to him by Klara as a gift, into a world-beating champion. Aided by a feline horse whisperer with conveniently mystical power over other animals, Erno spies a chance not just to restore his finances but also to engineer an elegant belated revenge against von Oettingen, winning back his family home and sabotaging Klara’s impending marriage to a dastardly love rival. But of course, the best laid plans of horses and men often fall at the first hurdle.

Herendi stuffs Kincsem with pleasingly anachronistic details: lurid Lady Gaga-level outfits that resemble steampunk BDSM fetishwear, string quartets that sound like rock bands, even a sly joke about valet parking for horses: “I don’t want to see a single scratch on her.”

Nagy certainly plays his smoldering antihero role with an edge of self-parody — Clark Gable by way of David Hasselhoff. A few more of these arch Baz Luhrmann-style touches would have been welcome in a marathon two-hour spectacle that is ultimately more deluxe soap opera than post-modern pastiche. A lively gallop at first, but a slog in the final furlong.

Production companies: Skyfilm Studio, Cafe Film
Cast: Ervin Nagy, Andrea Petrik, Tibor Gaspar, Jozsef Gyabronka, Tamas Keresztes, Fekete Tibor, Peter Scherer, Zoltan Ratoti, Lehel Kovacs, Zalan Makranczi, Monika Balsai, Kati Lazar
Director: Gabor Herendi
Screenwriters: Gabor Herendi, Balint Hegedus
Producers: Gabor Herendi, Tamas Hutlassa
Cinematographer: Peter Szatmeri
Editors: Istvan Kiraly, Gyula Istvan Mozes
Costume designer: Ibolya Bardosi
Music: Robert Hrutka
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Market)
Sales company: Hungarian National Film Fund

121 minutes