Expressionism isn't really supposed to work in the movies. Critics and theorists have long held that the occasional Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the exception that proves the rule: Narrative film is all about making your artifice seem as realistic as possible. Filmmakers seeking to externalize states of mind usually resort to compromise measures, such as bizarre settings (weird architecture), artful noir shadows or the odd scene drenched in neon.
Still, with the right subject matter, a talented artist can pull off something more thoroughgoing and more extreme. Almanac of Fall (new on DVD) is an early work by Bela Tarr, Hungary's premier filmmaker. It's a Bergmanesque 1983 ensemble psychodrama set in a single cavernous and grandly decaying apartment. The flat belongs to Hedi (played by Hedi Temassy), an aging matriarch who fears being alone. Its four other occupants include her brutish, layabout 30-year-old son, Janos; her nurse, the sensuous, manipulative Anna; a depressive middle-aged schoolteacher named Tibor; and a mysterious third man, who goes unnamed while linking the others together.
The film's story is mostly talk, its philosophical and soul-searching monologues broken up by a few tense dialogues. On ghostly sets, the outside world's a rumor as the characters contend for Hedi's money ... and over sex with each other. Usually there's anger simmering beneath the surface; the only time the characters seem to move is to assault each other, which happens more frequently as the film progresses.
Yet visually, Almanac of Fall is singularly striking. Its compositions, camera angles and tracking shots will have connoisseurs drooling. More notably, its very fine, naturalistic acting takes place under lighting that's nearly color-coded. Some scenes are washed in blue, others in red. Sometimes one half of the frame's in red, the other in green; one scene finds two characters nose-to-nose in extreme close-up, one in blue light, the other in orange.
It shouldn't work, this technique loudly summoning attention to itself. But instead of seeming stagey, Tarr's approach entagles you in his characters' twisted skein of need. In the concluding scene, both the set and the actors are shot in blue-white light. They might as well be dusted in ash, you think. And then, you understand, metaphorically they are.