For Helen Mirren fans, please note: this is one of those rare movies in which she gets to keep her clothes on. In the part of Emerenc, a grumpy old cleaning lady, she is rarely seen without a headscarf and all the woolies required to withstand a winter in Budapest.
This film suggests that for any visit to Hungary a sturdy umbrella is a necessity. The elements enjoy a starring role in a story that makes Budapest seem like an epicentre of extreme weather events. Storms arise with extraordinary rapidity and break with savage force, drenching people on the spot. We assume this is symbolic of Emerenc’s stormy personality, but the drama is held in check by director István Szabó’s measured, rather classical approach to film-making.
The score provides a key, most of it being chamber music by Robert Schumann, such as the Kinderszenen. One of the great Romantic composers, Schumann’s pieces strike a miraculous balance of feeling and form. That equilibrium was undone by his gradual descent into madness, and this story charts a similar journey as the closed door of Emerenc’s past is prised open.
The story is simple. It is the 1960s, Magda (Martina Gedeck) and her husband, Tibor (Károly Eperjes) come to live in a large apartment in one of Budapest’s leafier suburbs. They visit the poor people across the road and ask one industrious-looking specimen if she will do some house-keeping for them. This is Emerenc, who reveals herself straight away as being blunt to the point of rudeness.
She does, however, condescend to work for Magda and Tibor, although on her terms rather than theirs. With a novelist’s instinct Magda becomes increasingly fascinated by this enigmatic woman, and tries to learn more about her life.
It seems at times a masochistic endeavour. Emerenc is a mixture of aggressive bad manners, fierce pride, and exceptional kindness. She is much better with dogs and cats than with human beings. Her greatest piece of stubbornness is a refusal to allow anyone into her small apartment. Behind the closed door lies the key to her wilful character – or so we are led to believe.
In the course of the film we are led to believe a great many things. What happened to Emerenc during the war? What was her relation to the wealthy Jewish family for whom she worked in those days? On what terms did she leave her native village? What relatives does she have?
It’s unlikely that any of these questions will induce the same passionate curiosity in the viewer as they do in Magda. If we feel a certain detachment, it may be because every Hungarian actor’s voice has been dubbed into English. This is very skilfully done, but it cannot prevent that disconcerting feeling one gets when lip movements and words do not synch. In an arthouse film by Fellini we can overlook this oddity, but in a conventional realist drama it niggles from start to finish.
The main thrust of the story concerns the developing relationship between the two women: prosperous, middle-class Magda, whose career as a writer is finally starting to take off, and narrow, bitter, working-class Emerenc, whose life seems to be contracting as she grows older and more lonely. They have a friendship of sorts, but it is a perilously fragile one, where love can quickly turn to hate.
The Door is based on an acclaimed novel by the real Magda Szabó (1917-2007) who was no relation to the director. It would be interesting to know whether István Szabó follows the book closely, or brings his own ideas to the narrative, using it as a conduit to give a potted history of modern Hungary, with Emerenc as Everywoman.
With two distinguished actresses in the lead roles, and a script that is forever hinting at something deep and dark, this is almost a good film. There is, however, some inhibiting factor that never allows us to fully enter into the story. The problem most probably lies with Szabó’s directing. Ever since he had a runaway success of Mefisto (1981) he has enjoyed a high reputation in cinema circles, but his movies have always been superior quality pot boilers. He is cautious, scrupulous and conservative.
While there are much worse sins for any director, this doesn’t change the fact that Szabó’s films always seem to promise more than they deliver, and The Door is no exception. If one wanted to sound like an old Hungarian communist, it could be said that he is a thoroughly bourgeois filmmaker. In fact, his movies are a comfortable fit for one of the best definitions of the bourgeois state: instant excitation and perpetually postponed gratification.
The Door, Hungary/Germany, rated M, 94 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 21, 2012