While the films of Peter Strickland are celebrated for their emulation of midcentury genre cinema, much of their structure – being their oscillation between narrative and abstraction – arguably has its origins in Katalin Varga (2009), a film that takes many of its visual cues in part from the pastoral, a de facto pictorial genre that has historically represented an ‘idealised’ vision of rural life, often rhetorically charged as imagery connoting a moral, civil or otherwise peaceful way of life relative to that of a city.
At the same time, Strickland’s project originates partially in western avant-garde cinema from the middle 20th century. His short film Conduct Phase (2010), for instance, bears some resemblance to the 1970s experiments of Werner Nekes and Dore O in how it features Super 8 footage of dogs in multiple exposure, a deliberate manipulation of the image and complication of the filmic sign. This manipulation forms a figurative ‘antiworld’ – a filmic landscape based in mimesis but without an immediate mimetic register. The pastoral image in Katalin Varga is at once diffuse and comprised of displaced narrative fragments arranged in networked landscapes, often meant to imply the characters’ thoughts and feelings. These fragments presage similar episodes in all of Strickland’s subsequent feature films: the sound engineering schematics and narrative rupture implying Gilderoy’s conflicted feelings about his work in Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the insect imagery and focus pull effects implying the erotic hypnosis in The Duke of Burgundy (2014), and the use of stop motion and collage with fashion advertising implying a consumer dread in In Fabric (2018).
Strickland’s antiworld is thus rhizomatic – to use a term coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – in that Strickland’s images are unbound to narrative but at the same time exist as a kind of ‘cognitive noise’ or field of signification that “ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains.”1 Because much of Strickland’s imagery has its roots in midcentury avant-garde and because much of his subject matter is derived from a ‘networked’ postmodern understanding of European genre films of the past, it follows that one might heuristically apply the principles of the rhizome to that imagery and subject matter. What distinguishes the antiworld in Katalin Varga is its emergence during moments of ‘imminence’ as it is understood by Franco Berardi, and wherein by his definition future events are “…inscribed in the present structure of the world.”2 Strickland’s film has some similarities with Mihail Sadoveanu’s 1930 novel Baltagul, in turn based on a Romanian pastoral song Miorița and adapted into a film in 1969 by Mircea Muresan. The story, in its many forms, has to do with a premonition, specifically the sense in a character that another is dead or will soon die. Moments of imminence arrive at several points throughout the journey undertaken in the film by the mother Katalin (Hilda Péter) and her son Orbán (Norbert Tankó) to find Orbán’s father, specifically in those that descend into the narrative’s antiworld that alludes to its own past and future.
Consider a scene where Katalin stands at the edge of a forest and stares offscreen, frightened. The sequence cuts between the forest and Katalin’s face as the film’s discordant drone emerges. While no ‘event’ takes place in the scene, it is charged with both past and future events. The viewer eventually learns that the forest is the site of Katalin’s rape at the hands of Antal (Tibor Pálffy) – and that Orbán is the result of that rape – yet it is also where Katalin eventually hides the body of Antal’s accomplice, Gergely (Roberto Giacomello). The image of Katalin’s figure set against this landscape thus forms a field of affect, with no bearing in that moment on the film’s events but nevertheless bound to those events.
This field of affect is found throughout Strickland’s filmography, functioning as a disruption of a narrative order. The butterfly swarm in The Duke of Burgundy and the advertising collages in In Fabric use Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) and Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) respectively as templates. Brakhage’s film is an assemblage of discontinuous still images formed by affixing moth parts to celluloid, while Hamilton’s collage extrapolates how advertising is predicated on idealised imagery of consumer products by reconfiguring that imagery in an absurd register. The presentation of visual elements in this way functions as a disruption of a narrative order in that by displacing and recomposing fragments of an image in a diffuse field they have no start or finish. The pastoral, then, becomes the site of semiotic disruption in Katalin Varga. In a scene where Katalin disposes Gergley’s body in the woods, she notices the figure of a girl in the distance who, upon realising what Katalin is doing, runs away. One might compare this scene to another at the start of the film, where a girl picking flowers in a clearing sees a crouched figure in the distance. The opening scene is shot in bright sunlight and captures the clearing’s pastel colours, while the disposal is shot in diffused light, filling the frame with fir trees that dwarf the figures. At face value, both scenes are not unlike many of the pastoral landscapes produced throughout Europe in the 19th century (consider Luminiș by Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu). The film’s reverberations of Katalin’s emotional arc undermine the pastoral image, however: she attempts to conceal a crime, and the figure of a girl watching her indicates that the rest of the village will learn of the crime, implying an unseen network outside of the frame that pastoral compositions omit.
At the same time, the pastoral is irrevocably bound to what Julia Kristeva called the “Oedipal triangle”, or the dynamic that exists inside a ‘traditional’ family structure of two parents of opposite sex and their offspring.3 Because the pastoral operates inside a semiological system – specifically one’s historical association in the west of certain images such as a forest clearing, farm or pasture with a ‘traditional’ or moral ideology of family life, which is based on a binary with an urban setting’s ‘non-traditional’ or morally corrupt vision of life – the confounding of pastoral images in the film carries with it a collapse of that image’s meaning. A recurring image throughout Katalin Varga is of the mother and son asleep in the same bed, with one scene connoting both the pastoral image as a specific site and the Oedipal relationship that the pastoral reflects. Katalin says to Orbán: “We’re very near, my love,” a statement that the listener can interpret as ‘transitive’ (“…we’re very near [to our destination], my love”) or ‘reflexive’ or ‘intransitive’ (“…we’re very near [to each other], my love”). The pastoral indirectly portrays an ideal derived from the Oedipal triangle in that its images are at once immediately identifiable and unconsciously associated by the viewer with a ‘traditional’ family structure. The solidarity between a sign and what it signifies, to paraphrase Kristeva, is beset by one’s unconscious understanding that that solidarity exists due to the ‘father’ component of the triangle representing the clé de voûte (‘keystone’) of all signification in the first place.4 The literal absence of a father or father figure throughout the majority of the film brings the ‘non-traditional’ relationship of the mother and son to the fore while at the same time undermining the latent ideal of the pastoral.
The dynamics of the Oedipal triangle and of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ family structures arrives at an impasse in Katalin Varga’s final act, which is essentially a confrontation between a mother and a father that causes the filmic sign associated with the pastoral to collapse. In the scene where Katalin accompanies Antal and his wife Etelka on a boat, Katalin recalls her rape at the hands of Antal and Gergley in a speech delivered in monotone and practically devoid of human affect. While she speaks, the camera remains fixed on her in an unbroken single take. The viewer sees her leaning back, almost supine, from a POV that begins as an over-the-shoulder shot that eventually zooms into an extreme close-up of her face, which then appears to ‘levitate’ in front of the river, which at that point is rendered as an endless field of rippling water. Though an idealised genre by design, pastoral portraiture indirectly reflected the plight of rural people – their labour, lifestyle, the quotidian (as with Grigorescu’s Fată cu zestrea ei) – though through a recollection of a traumatic event, the film charges their plight with an ‘elsewhere’ event that idyllic pastoral compositions omit. The scene at once abstracts the pastoral image and complicates the dynamic upon which the pastoral image is based. Antal, Katalin and Orbán together constitute the familial triangle that has historically beset a pastoral setting, though because Orbán is the result of a rape, Strickland undermines the premises of the pastoral image and eventually reconstitues that image in the film’s conclusion.
Antiworld and imminence thus form a figurative landscape depicting the cyclical nature of trauma. At one point, Orbán runs away, and both characters return to the forest where at once the crime was committed and thus where Orbán was conceived. The family structure that disintegrates at the film’s opening becomes reconstituted at its close, as with a rhizomatic system according to Deleuze’s “asignifying rupture”: Katalin and Orbán sever themselves from the connective tissue of her husband and their village, while the structure established by Antal, his wife Etelka, and their village eventually disintegrates with the arrival of Katalin and Orbán. By the end the film has removed Katalin and Etelka, leaving only a biological father and son. Ultimately, what one sees in Katalin Varga are the ‘pharyngeal arches’ of what would eventually form a part of his approach to narrative. Strickland’s antiworld, in the case of this film, confounds pastoral imagery in its diffusion and complication of codified images, just as his latter films would represent a reconstitution of the same.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Paris, 1980, pp. 13-20. In the introduction, the authors describe the various principles of the ‘rhizome’ concept, including connectivity-heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, and inamenability to structural models. ↩
- Franco Berardi, And: A Phenomenology of the End, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015, pp. 145-7. Berardi takes his cue from Deleuze and Guattari’s “beginning-middle-end” teleology and principle of heterogeneity. ↩
- Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Seuil, Paris, 1980, pp. 64-5. ↩
- Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, p. 64. Kristeva argues that our understanding of semiology is predicated on an unconscious Oedipal relationship: “…c’est d’être inscrit dans le triangle oedipien, que le sujet parlant jouit de la possibilité de cette condensation … lorsque Lacan situe le Nom du Père comme clé de voûte de tout signe, sens, discors, il indique la condition nécessaire d’une, et une seule opération, constitutive, il est vrai, de l’unité signifiante…”. ↩