'It’s Not the Time of My Life' ('Ernellaek Farkaseknal'): Karlovy Vary Review

Courtesy of KVIFF
Scenes From Two Hungarian Marriages.

Hungarian art house director Szabolcs Hajdu's independent feature finds him in more autobiographical and accessible waters than usual.

There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact that Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu’s independently produced It’s Not the Time of My Life (Ernellaek Farkaseknal), made without any state aid, turns out to be one of his most conventional features, though it’s also one of his most directly moving. After often arty films about people operating in tiny subsets of humanity, including Communist-era professional athletes (White Hands), slaves (Bibliotheque Pascal) and an African outsider on the Hungarian Puszta (Mirage), his latest, adapted from his own play, is a frequently familiar family drama that unfolds entirely within a single bourgeois apartment and that, in its best moments, recalls the intimate works of independent filmmakers such as Bergman and Cassavetes. After a high-profile Karlovy Vary competition slot, this should travel to other festivals, with some sales likely, especially if the jury deems it award-worthy.

Farkas (played by the helmer) and Eszter (actress Orsolya Torok-Illyes, Hajdu’s real-life partner) have a young son, Bruno (Zgismond Hajdu), and live in a comfortable and cluttered middle-class home in Budapest (shot in the director’s actual digs). Their lives are turned upside down when Eszter’s sister, Ernella (Erika Tanko), her husband Albert (Domokos Szabo) and their tween daughter (Lujza Hajdu) show up on their doorstep one night and ask if they can stay there. Their sudden return from Scotland, where they lived, is unexpected and remains largely unexplained. This especially frustrates Farkas, who sees himself as a man of principle who likes to hold everyone accountable for what they say or have said and who insists he distinctly remembers Albert saying they wouldn’t be back for at least 10 years (they’ve perhaps been away for a year).

The adaptation, also by the filmmaker, has already suggested that things aren’t exactly rosy between Farkas and Eszter, who’ve been together for 18 years but whose relationship has deteriorated since the arrival of little Bruno. In one of the film’s most unexpectedly poignant scenes, the often-argumentative Farkas allows himself a surprising moment of serenity and candor, explaining he feels sidelined by what he sees as Eszter’s complete shift of attention, admiration and adoration from him to their son.

There are several similar character epiphanies sprinkled throughout, and Hajdu impressively maneuvers the cast in and out of the various rooms in the house (and outside the house, never actually seen except through the window) to create opportunities for the various characters to either interact or be alone. Their conversations in turn reveal the complexity of the two couples and their children by allowing the contrasts between their stated principles and their actual behavior to surface organically.

Albert, for example, confesses to Farkas that Ernella has cheated on him in Scotland with a hunky 24-year-old, which causes Farkas to backpedal on his earlier statement that he’d kill Eszter if she’d ever do that to him. Is he simply trying to avoid a divorce for his sister-in-law and her husband, neither of whom he doesn’t much seem to like, or did Albert get on his good side earlier by saying he might not be Farkas’ best friend but Albert does consider him his, since he has very few friends? The answer may not be clear-cut, but it does get the audience thinking about how our values and principles are not written in stone and that there’s often a huge gap between theoretical morality and the practical application of them in the mess that is real life.

Despite its origins and single set, the material never feels stage-bound, with the fluid cinematography always staying close to the characters. The look is also surprisingly coherent, especially when considering that it was shot by no less than 13 not very experienced cinematographers, reportedly all film-school students of Hajdu’s who each got assigned a sequence.

Acting is uniformly excellent, with Hajdu himself impressive as an abrasive and unlikable character that nonetheless manages to become touching when more of his own insecurities are revealed. It’s the recognition of the characters’ small failures and imperfections that finally gives the film its emotional heft. Though certainly nothing new, this is a poignant, intimate and surprisingly straightforward new addition to Hajdu’s oeuvre that makes one wonder what he’ll do next.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: Filmworks Ltd., Foxus Fox Studio, Latokep Ensemble
Cast: Erika Tanko, Orsolya Torok-Illyes, Szabolcs Hajdu, Domokos Szabo, Lujza Hajdu, Zsigmond Hajdu, Imre Gelanyi, Agota Szilagyi
Writer-director: Szabolcs Hajdu
Producers: Daniel Herner, Andras Muhi, Ferenczy Gabor, Zsofia Muhi
Cinematographers: Csaba Banto, Flora Chilton, David Gajdics, Betti Hejusz, Marton Kisteleki, Akos K. Kovacs, Peter Miskolczi, Peter Pasztor, Tamas Simon, Mark Szalao, Gabor Szilagyi, Gergely Timar, Levente Toth
Editor: Szilvia Papp
Sales: Filmworks Ltd.

Not rated, 81 minutes