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The Door: all about the maid

Hellen Mirren and Martina Gedeck in a scene from Istvan Szabo''s The Door.
By Esteban Colombet
For the Herald
“We are the slaves of our maids, let’s face it.” (Silvina Ocampo)

A promising feature by veteran director Istvan Szabo falls short of insight

The Door (2012), Oscar-winning Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo's latest film is, perhaps, an attempt to pay posthumous tribute to the great novel of the same name by Magda Szabo. Published in 1987, Szabo’s Az Ajtó, translated into English as The Door, received the reputed Prix Femina Étranger in 2003 — one of the most important literary prizes awarded to foreign writers in France.

The film tells the story of the decades-long relationship between a writer named Magda, her husband Tibor (matching the real life names of Szabo and her spouse) and Emerenc, an eccentric and aloof rustic who lives for countless years without allowing anyone inside her home, as if trying to hide a terrible secret. Emerenc eventually becomes, for all intents and purposes, Magda’s maid, whom the filmmaker portrays with an almost bulletproof defiance of logic and history: without going any further, through the grace and mercy of God, the Director or whomever it may concern, Emerenc lives in a humble little house fortuitously located one block away from the writer's large home in an upscale Budapest neighbourhood.

Every subtle, evocative and subjective note that helped Magda Szabo become one of Hungary’s greatest writers vanishes completely in this exceedingly plain screen adaptation, being replaced by direct dialogue which is too gauche and blunt and has little to nothing to do either with the original novel or with the contrasting worlds these two women belong to or the female universe itself.

Being the legendary filmmaker that he is, Szabo manages to repair this unfortunate maladroitness through virtuosic shots of skies, rains and storms, as well as the few flashbacks where Emerenc’s past makes a scarce and almost dialogue-free appearance — mainly her childhood and teenage years spent in a small village on the Great Hungarian Plane. Adding to these scanty insights, Szabo's body of expertise in narrative cinematography, accompanied by a soundtrack of Schumann’s exquisite music and a solid recreation of the era and backed by Hellen Mirren’s commendable performance as the maid prevent the film from turning into an epic failure.

While Magda Szabo’s first person, monologue-inclined narrative provided an eye-opening insight into the writer’s painstaking efforts of communicating with her maid at an almost confessionary level, Istvan Szabo chooses the rather flat device of an omniscient narrator, discarding the bountiful resources of subjectivity in favour of a descriptive but analytically lacking approach.

The apparent tribute to Hungary's distinguished writer fades as her onscreen character loses ground before the more eclectic and tempestuous persona of her maid. Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others, The Baader Meinhof Complex) fails to become Magda Szabo, her performance is insubstantial, at times frozen and dense, lacking in subtle nuances and turning the most reputed Hungarian female intellectual of the time in an arrogantly frivolous person that every so often seems more interested in dresses and furs than arts and literature. To put it bluntly, it’s hard to reconcile this character with the image of a blacklisted Magda Szabo, who was rehabilitated by the regime in the 1960s - when the film is supposedly unfolding — and who, during the years of ostracism, worked as a teacher in the Great Plain, where she likely taught students from her maid's background. Her husband Tibor barely musters the director’s interest and there’s little to be said about him, except that his health is rather poor and he seems a bit surly.

No reference is made to the artistic and literary life of the time and even less to Magda’s creative or writing efforts. The meagre insight is reduced to a mention of her receiving the Kossuth Prize — which Magda Szabo actually got in 1978 — and a few phone calls from some minister or other. The lack of introspection and historical analysis is, at the very least, surprising. On a more colourful note, Istvan Szabo uses a small cameo of reputed Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel.

“The only way that I can save her is if I betrayed her,” Magda says at some point and her words may serve as an indication of what the director actually does with the film, although his treatment of Magda Szabo’s book would remain open to question.

The film seems to depict everything in violent and compact contrasts, where the poor are good in a Rousseau-like manner, displaying a staunch sense of memory and a metaphysical telluric sagacity which the intellectuals — corrupted by the great culture — only try to attain but fail to and eventually remain just unsavoury and forgetful. The Door hints heavily at class warfare, in a master-and-servant manner redolent of second hand moral.

An entertaining film with a little about a lot and a lot about nothing, which is too much or too little for the legendary skill and genius of Istvan Szabo.

Production notes. The Door, 2012. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Screenplay by Istvan Szabo and Andrea Veszits, based on the novel by Magda Szabo. Cinematography by Elemer Ragalyi. Editing by Reka Lemhenyi. Cast: Hellen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Karoly Eperjes, Gabor Koncz, Eniko Borcsok, Mari Nagy, Agi Szirtes, Peter Andorai, Erika Marozsan, Anna Szandtner, Reka Tenki, Denes Ujlaky, Jiri Menzel. Running time: 94 minutes.

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