The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier): Karlovy Vary Review

Le Grand Cahier - H - 2013.jpg
An aloof adaptation of Agota Kristof's best-seller that's technically impressive but precludes audience identification.

Hungarian director János Szász's Crystal Globe-winning adaption of Agota Kristof's best-seller, about twin boys during WWII, co-stars Ulrich Thomsen and Ulrich Matthes.

Thirteen-year-old twin brothers are forced to shack up with their evil, country-bumpkin grandmother during World War II in Le Grand Cahier, Hungarian director János Szász's rather detached adaptation of Agota Kristof's heart-rending, French-language best-seller The Notebook. Technically almost too immaculate, the film smoothens many of the original's rough edges, replacing the book's unreliable and disturbing children's point of view with a distancing voice-over, cute animated sequences and two stone-faced performances that make it hard to care about these identical siblings who decide to train themselves in cruelty so they'll stand a better chance of surviving the war.

However, the novel's notoriety and the European co-production's recent top Crystal Globe win at Karlovy Vary should help it get noticed in Europe. Stateside, where films about children during WWII often find a niche audience, a boutique distributor could also come on board, especially if Hungary submits the film for Oscar consideration.

Probably to avoid starvation and air raids, two unnamed twin boys (László and András Gyémánt) are taken by their mother (Gyöngyver Bognar, also in Szász's Opium) to their grandmother (veteran actress Piroska Molnár, terrific), who's lived in a countryside shack ever since a Nazi officer (Ulrich Thomsen, another Opium alumnus) took over her farmhouse. But it's not a warm welcome, as Grandma has never seen the boys and feels no warmth for them or her estranged daughter.

The villagers call Grandmother "the Witch," and the boorish, often drunk and cruel woman does her best to live up to her reputation, calling the siblings "bastards" and making them work extremely hard for very little food. The dark-haired twins, who look like they've escaped from a Benetton Kids ad rather than a city devastated by years of war, find solace in their self-imposed study time, when they write everything they learn from their Bible and books into a notebook (the "cahier" of the book's original title) given to them by their father (Ulrich Matthes).

The novel only contained this "homework," intentionally naive compositions in which the first-person narrators try to only describe truthful, objective things instead of emotions. What made Kristof's book so powerful is that between the lines, a powerful picture emerged of two children whose psyche was severely warped by the war through their realization that some of their own family, fellow countrymen and final liberators, the Soviets, had become just as cruel as the Nazi occupiers.

Szász tries to maintain both the young teenagers' dispassionately objective voice and simultaneously convey what they are going through emotionally — something the kids deny themselves by applying themselves to "cruelty training," systematically fighting each other and not eating for days in order to heighten their chances of surviving the surrounding brutality.

But the frequent voice-overs, in which the boys read what they wrote (heard over shots of them writing), add distance rather than insight because it is not the action of writing that's revealing but the events and thought processes that led them to write what they did (or, more often than not, made conspicuous by not writing about it). Similarly, the occasionally animated notebook drawings are unintentionally eye-catching rather than naive and shocking because Szász seems more interested in the visuals themselves rather than what led the kids to draw them.

Since Cahier doesn't shown much of the twins before they become so hard on themselves, it's hard to care for them in the first place -- and this feeling is reinforced by László and András Gyémánt's intentionally expressionless performances, which suggest too much what they've become and not enough what they've had to give up to get there.

The film is beautifully conceived — almost too much so for a tale about the devastating mental and moral deformation caused by the war — with Haneke's regular cinematographer, Christian Berger (The White Ribbon), capturing the Hungarian countryside with a real feel for the seasons and Jóhann Jóhannsson's percussion-driven score punching up the drama.

Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competition)

Production companies: Hunnia Filmstudio, Intuit Pictures, Amour Fou, Dolce Vita Films
Cast: László Gyémánt, András Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár, Ulrich Thomsen, Ulrich Matthes, Gyöngyver Bognar, Orsolya Tóth
Director: János Szász
Screenwriters: János Szász, Andras Szekér, based on the novel "The Notebook" by Agota Kristof
?Producers: Sandor Söth, Pal Sandor
Director of photography: Christian Berger?
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson?
Costume designer: Janos Breckl
?Editor: Szilvia Ruszev
?Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 111 minutes