Budapest Noir is fun, but uninspired at SF Jewish Film Festival


Still from Éva Gárdos's BUDAPEST NOIR - Image courtesy of Pioneer Pictures

I walk up to the Castro Theatre around 5:40, friends in tow, silently congratulating myself for arriving a full twenty minutes early. As my friends and I confidently jaywalk across Castro Street to enter the theatre, I hear one let out a small moan – what’s wrong now, I wonder – then I see the line. It not only snakes around one corner, but continues past the next far into a residential neighborhood behind the historic movie palace. Clearly there was some buzz about one of the first American screenings of this Hungarian film. We trudged along as the line steadily moved forward, finally culminating in a mad frenzy at the entry to the theatre to give someone, anyone our ticket before walking inside. The theatre is packed, and those early twenty minutes I thought would at least result in a seat on the first floor only bought me one in the nosebleeds. I sit down listening to live organ music and sensing the anticipation floating above the crowd. After the organist finishes, there’s a brief introduction by someone from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film’s sponsor, then director Eva Gardos steps onstage. She, like her main character, is a person of few words, and without much fanfare the show begins.

Budapest Noir is a movie rendition of the bestselling Hungarian novel of the same name by Vilmos Kondor. The film takes place in Budapest’s seedy underbelly, winter, 1936, just before Hungary aligns itself with Hitler. The mist and drudge are the perfect backdrop to this nostalgic murder mystery. Zsigmond Gordon, the hunky, ubermensch reporter, meets a mysterious dark-haired beauty in a cafe just before police find her dead body on the streets of the red-light district. Gordon becomes obsessed with uncovering the story of this seemingly forgotten young woman. On the side, ex-lover and photographer Krisztina reappears at Gordon’s apartment and serves as his investigative sidekick and girlfriend. They follow the woman’s tracks from the chief of police, to a brothel owner, a nude photographer, corrupt politicians, and underground fights, eventually discovering that Budapest’s best-known coffee importer is actually the girl’s father. He is secretly Jewish and would not allow the mystery woman, who we now know as his daughter Fanny, to marry her lover, the son of a rabbi, so she fled. The final scene is perhaps the most touching, where Krisztina leaves Gordon without warning for London and the two tearfully separate at the train station.

Maybe it was the fact that the entire film was in English subtitles, but I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, and when I did follow, quite predictable. Budapest Noir has the prostitutes, the seedy old politicians, the Communists, a hefty sprinkling of fascist and communist allusions, and maybe even a reference to Hungary’s current political situation, but Gardos did not incorporate these elements in a unique way. Even the climax felt, well, anticlimactic, as Fanny’s mother kills Fanny’s father out of revenge in a rather bizarre scene involving a gun and birthday cake. The series of events make sense at the end and tie up neatly but didn’t leave me at the edge of my seat.

The film was initially hailed as an artistic achievement – Gardos “brought” noir to Hungarian cinema, and as an extension Hungarian cinema to the rest of the world – but the movie read more American than Hungarian. Perhaps this is because Gardos spent a lot of time in Canada and the US as a child, but despite the fascism and Nazism, Budapest Noir might have occurred in 1920s New York City. I did not experience anything unique to Hungarian culture or to Budapest as a city; the only thing that proved the film was Hungarian were the English subtitles. Head honcho Gordon might have been Humphrey Bogart.

Gordon is the essence of film noir, from his obsession with bourbon to frequent voice-overs stating things like, “I’ve seen my fair share of death.” I anticipated many of Gordon’s “unique” characteristics: he’s a playboy, he’s “seen things”, he’ll find the truth regardless of the violence involved. These are all cliches of the genre that actor Krisztian Kolovratnik fails to transcend. Gordon is a caricature, and while entertaining, overall the performance is unoriginal. The only piece that felt real was his relationship with Krisztina and even then the relationship is more transactional than romantic.

Considering that the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened the film, I expected a deeper connection to Judaism. The film frequently references anti-Semitism but these events are singular and seem to occur in a vacuum. Notably, Gordon often speaks with a disabled roadside vendor who must eventually flee Budapest after someone throws a brick through his shop window, and he and Krisztina interact with a blonde man who who attacks a performer for singing a “Jewish” song. Gardos intends these events to instill a feeling of urgency and paint the picture of looming Nazism, however, they feel more like “the way things are”, not anomalies. The events themselves are punctuated, isolated, and do not affect any of the main characters in a meaningful way. This begs the question: do the events need to have some larger significance? Is it enough to simply be historically correct and not focus on the everlasting effect that fascism and Nazism would have on Hungary and the world? I’m frankly not sure, but I do know I was unimpressed with Gardos’ attempt to make anti-Semitism a larger theme. If a movie would stay the same after removing a “key” element, it is not, in fact, a key element.

Cinematography is Budapest Noir‘s greatest strength. Unlike other aspects of the film, the setting strikes the perfect balance of nostalgic and realistic. We could feel the chill of the night time fog, the danger lurking in each dimly lit alleyway, and the everyday charm of a mid-afternoon bourbon in the local cafe. The setting is overindulgent and romantic, yet perfectly stages the period drama.

Budapest Noir is an entertaining ninety-five minutes that isn’t likely to change anyone’s worldview. Taken at face value, Budapest Noir is an admirable effort at resurrecting a dying genre, but invokes almost no creativity and falls short of its potential. It’s cliche, cheesy, and fun, and was a pleasant way to spend Saturday evening, but did not leave me grasping for more.
Madison Wilson is a summer editorial intern at Tikkun Magazine and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College (most likely) majoring in English.

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