“There is something I must say. because it’s a part of–part of the creation. Something I had nothing to do with. Nonetheless, if not for me, no one would know about it, because it wouldn’t even exist. No one would know who Lajoska Balatony really was, and no one would be interested in where he came from, where he was heading, who his father or grandfather was. It is only important because it’s the end of something, and if something comes to an end, then its beginning will also be important.
Near the halfway point of today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie, a woman escorts a pregnant patient through a hospital to the gynecology wing, explaining that this particular ward is named after the wife of a martyr. This makes sense, because all women in this film exist in terms of their relation to a man, and all men in this film are martyrs to their own sexuality. Unusual, unclassifiable, unforgettable, the 2006 Hungarian film Taxidermia is a peculiar and disgusting masterpiece.
The title is a kind of multi-layered pun, a phrase that also describes the film itself, which details the web of literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical connections between men across the lineage of three generations. If taxidermy is the stuffing of bodies, Taxidermia is an exegesis of all the ways and reasons bodies may be stuffed, from sexual liasons to competitive eating to the preservation of the dead. It is not strictly a horror film until the last of the movie’s three sections, but if the emotion of horror is equal parts fear and disgust, the film’s first two parts lack only the fear. This is a gorgeous, yet viscerally nauseating movie–often at the exact same time. Each third follows one man down a path of self-destruction born of sexual frustration; while each story is compelling in its own right, it is the triptych as a whole that creates the movie’s overall effect, which I would describe as the sensation of looking at something which is horrible and gross and yet a part of existence which in its own purity and intensity may also be considered beautiful. I suspect this may be an extended metaphor for Hungarian nationalism, but it works fine without the context.
The first shot of the first segment shows us a man, soldier Morosgoványi Vendel, playing with a candle. Fascinated by the bright heat of its flame, Morosgoványi cups it with his fingers, sucks it into his open mouth, lets it lick at his chest. This is sex and sexuality for Morosgoványi, and by extension men in general: compulsively alluring despite the danger of getting burned. Over the course of this first story, he will turn again and again obsessively to different forms of masturbation, which punctuate an otherwise grim existence performing menial chores on the farm where he is stationed. Several instances are comically perilous, as when Morosgoványi goes from peeping at women through a knothole to penetrating it, unfortunately attracting the attention of a nearby rooster. Others portray the cyclical nature of male pleasure. One extraordinary sequence contrasts magical realism, as Morosgoványi imagines himself having a sexual encounter with the Little Match Girl in a life-size Hans Christian Andersen pop-up book, with a swift and horrifying post-orgasmic cut to an uncomfortably quick-cut montage of a pig being slaughtered on the farm. To Taxidermia, men are doomed to repeat this cycle both daily and generationally, building their intentions toward an absurd effort to get what it is that they want, then deflating into bitter disappointment and shame at having gotten it. The film aligns these ideas elegantly in this segment in the symbol of the pig, which is fattened, slaughtered, and placed in a trough. Another extraordinary shot revolves over the trough, through the floor of the room, and over it again, its contents, the pig meat, now replaced by women bathing, now a soldier’s body, now a child being born, and so on. The pig’s transformation connects the ideas of sex, food, and death, and the trough in which it is housed is the cycle of life which surrounds and contextualizes that connection. Under these conditions, Morosgoványi’s story ends in the only possible manner–and yet one which holds sway over the next two generations, dooming them to lives of equal passion, pain, and pointlessness.
In painting, a triptych is made of three panels, and often the middle panel is larger than the other two, as if they are reflecting it, more subordinate and less literal in subject. The same applies here, where the film’s middle segment is its most realistic and restrained in style and subject matter, and it seems as though it is the most central of the film’s many mirrors. This is a movie suffused with synecdoche and metonymy; fractal, every element and level of the story contains all the others. But this is the part of the film where the symbolic misfortunes of Morosgoványi Vendel are translated literally into the life of his son, Balatony Kálmán. How literally? Morosgoványi conceives his son with a woman on the trough containing the slaughtered pig; Kálmán is born with a pig’s tail.
Troughs also feature heavily in this second act, which follows Kálmán’s adult career as a competitive eater. Soup, chocolate, black pudding, even caviar are dumped into wide troughs for Kálmán and his opponents to eat on stage in timed rounds. Each competitor sits above a scale, and it is weight gain within the time limit that determines victory; the connection to Morosgoványi’s fattened livestock is clear. And after each contest, from trough eaten, to trough it is returned, as the contestants line up to vomit–a moment the film comically treats like any other post-game locker room scene of casual conversation and intense coaching moments. This segment of the film is inventive in the way it imagines a whole system of social conventions and physical equipment that goes with the sport, like the factory floor that contains crane-like machines for speedloading the food at a youth tryout, or a children’s song and dance routine performed before one competition with sweeping patriotic pride in the gluttonous sportsmen.
What would drive a man to participate in such an activity, since morbid obesity is obviously one of the costs of competition? Kálmán is motivated in the first place by his father figure, a coach who recognized Kálmán’s potential at a young age and who dreams of the day when the Olympic committee will finally recognize their sport; but their relationship only gets Kálmán to the level of second place in a regional event. What inspires him to try and win is a woman, Gizi, who draws his eye as she cheers for Hungary from the stands. One of Kálmán’s opponents also takes an interest in Gizi, and when an injury sets Kálmán back the competitor’s success catches Gizi’s attention. Just as in any other sports movie, it’s words of wisdom from Kálmán’s coach that inspires him to try again.
The film actually cuts from that moment of resolve to Kálmán learning of his now-wife Gizi’s pregnancy, an edit that obviously elides a significant passage of time in between. It’s a commonplace cinematic technique that is almost totally absent from Taxidermia, which prefers to use digital compositing throughout a single moving shot to transition back and forth in time. (For instance, a shot here of the discovery of young Kálmán’s talent on the factory floor cranes up and pans to an interior office above, where the adult Kálmán now talks to his coach.) This specific diversion from the film’s usual mode marks this as an important moment, as this is also the only one of the three segments that is significantly divided. The first half shows us Kálmán’s sport, and how he intends to use competitive eating to woo fan Gizi–ie., the absurd effort to attain–while the second half of his story shows how the consequences of that attainment result in disappointment and unhappiness, as the pregnancy and complications thereof destroy Kálmán’s career (and ultimately his marriage). To hide the pregnancy, for which medial instructions would prevent Gizi from sharing in her husband’s diet and sport, they elect to pretend their child is no more than a cyst; but that deception only buys them happiness for so long.
The third and final segment of Taxidermia follows that so-called “cyst,” now a grown man named Balatony Lajoska. This is the only true horror story of the piece, but dear God, quelle horreur! A thin, pale taxidermist, Lajoska lives a lonely, frustrated life. Like Morosgoványi and his lieutenant or Kálmán and his rival, Lajoska is also a man whose low social status is enforced by the domineering of other men in competition with him for respect and for women; but in this case, the man oppressing Lajoska is his own father. Embittered and cruel, Kálmán is now so grotesquely obese that he can no longer stand under his own power. He lives in a chair over a bedpan, watching television, stuffing chocolate bars into his mouth (silver wrapper and all–“It finds a role in the body,” he says, claiming that the paper is absorbed rather than excreted) and haranguing his son, whom Kálmán views as a supreme disappointment. Verbally and emotional abused, Lajoska hides resentment and rage under a surface that is quiet and withdrawn and seems to only find solace in his work as he calmly snips, stitches, and stuffs all manner of animals. His sexuality seems almost entirely sublimated into the taxidermy, as exhibited by the examples covering his shop from wall to wall; the only exception is a perfunctory series of attempts to ask out a checkout girl at the supermarket where he buys immense quantities of food for his father–chocolate bars and margarine. The latter he feeds to a trio of cats, which are kept in a little room behind bars in his father’s home. Kálmán is training them, you see, to be competitive eaters. Driven by his resentment of Lajoska for being unsuitable to fulfill his failed athletic ambitions, Kálmán figures the cats will have a better chance of fulfilling his legacy than his son. And they do, in a sense; from beast born, to beast is Kálmán ultimately returned.
I have no intention of describing the truly horrific conclusion of the story in any detail, except to say that it perfectly encapsulates the movie’s revulsion and despair at the way that masculine desires inevitable drive the lives of men toward self-destruction–and yet, as I said before, the purity and extremity of such an impulse holds a fascination all its own. Taxidermia ends with a display of objets d’art that are as beautiful, striking, and sad as they are grotesque. Like a great film, every life contains all the elements of its duration and conception, each expressing complexities of intention and emotion that are, at bottom, irreducible. The desires and cycles and movements of our lives are fundamentally inexplicable, and yet there they are, unquestionably real and only waiting for someone to come along and see.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.