Ágnes Kocsis: Fresh Air (Friss Levego, 2006)
reviewed by Peter Hames© 2008
Amid all the justifiable attention currently being directed towards the Romanian New Wave, it is sometimes forgotten that many of the other countries of Central-Eastern Europe have also generated significant new cinemas—the Czech “Velvet Generation,” the Polish “black series,” and the Slovenian New Wave among them. Similarly, Hungary has also produced its succession of young talents—Kornél Mundruczó's Pleasant Days (Szép napok, 2002) and Johanna (2005); György Pálfi's Hukkle (2002) and Taxidermia (2006); Benedek Fliegauf's Forest (Rengeteg, 2003), Dealer (2004), and Milky Way (Tejút, 2007); and subsequently Csaba Bollók Iska's Journey (Iszka utazása, 2007) and Ágnes Kocsis' Fresh Air.
Many of these films have been made on extremely low budgets, and while Mundruczó, Pálfi, and Fliegauf arguably fall within the traditional Hungarian concern with art cinema and the avant-garde, both Kocsis and Bollók have turned a powerful spotlight on the everyday, returning to the principles of Cesare Zavattini in their concern to document the lives of those in whom the cinema rarely shows interest. In Iska's Journey, the central character was found scavenging for iron in a former industrial area of Romania and played herself in the dramatized version of her story. If he didn't tell her story, noted Bollók, then who would.
Similarly, Ágnes Kocsis has taken her subject from the margins of society—a female toilet attendant. “The job of a bathroom attendant… is considered to be one of the most humiliating in our society. I thought it was an interesting subject to deal with through the shame her daughter feels…” 
Viola Biró (Júlia Nyakó) lives alone with her daughter Angéla (Izabella Hegyi) in a small flat while searching for a way out of her situation through visiting lonely hearts clubs. The film emphasizes the daily routine of their lives, a pattern from which there seems little prospect of escape. While the film's strength lies in its observation of situation and repetition, it also has its plot development as mother and daughter follow their parallel paths in search of happiness and success.
The film opens with Viola at the Lost and Found Hearts Club, and she continues to write to potential partners. One night, Angéla follows her to a “meeting” with a man to whom she has written, but Viola turns back without speaking to him. On another evening, she attends a sparsely attended religious gathering addressed by an American evangelist (with Hungarian translation). When she fails to respond to his emotional manipulation, she is told that she “lacks faith.”
In the meantime, Angéla, who is studying fashion design, has regular meetings with her best friend, Martina (Anita Turóczi) on a park bench. It is Martina who enters her for a competition, “New Talents in European Fashion Design.” At school, she meets up with the uncertain Emil (Zoltán Kiss) who, after helping her with her physics equations, eventually plucks up courage to make some romantic moves. The scenes where they wordlessly sip drinks and he talks about the stars recall the world of Miloš Forman's Black Peter (Cerný Petr, 1963) and Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965). Angéla decides to “escape” to Italy but, after hitchhiking to the border, finds herself unintentionally returned home.
The film concludes when Viola is robbed of her meager earnings—stupidly taking on the two men responsible with a deodorant spray—and ends up in hospital. After several non-communicative visits to the hospital, Angéla steals her keys and takes over her job at the toilets. While this indicates her concern for her mother—Kocsis regards it as a positive recognition of reality—it is not clear if this is a temporary resolution or if, like her mother, she is now locked into a life without prospect.
Viola's job experience—the obsessive and repetitive cleaning of toilets and floors—is carried over into her home life. On the tram home, she smells her hands and, when she gets there, she always bathes and scrubs herself systematically. Her daughter immediately opens all the windows. The flat is precisely and sparsely organized—a kind of mirror image of her room at the toilets. Here, apart from cleaning, Viola's job consists of supervising the toilets, receiving money from clients (both male and female, on opposing counters), and handing out the required/estimated amount of toilet paper. Her room is furnished with a deodorizing artificial plant and toilet rolls hanging against a red/maroon cloth background, with useful wall pockets. It is almost like an art exhibit, and when Angéla takes over, she opens a previously disguised cupboard, full of every conceivable brand of deodorant. The range of startling colors provides its own contrast with the reality of the job, and Angéla is soon employing the sprays actively.
While Viola and Angéla scarcely communicate in words, the similarities in their lives are quite apparent—they essentially respond to the world about them and the limited possibilities available. Like Iska's Journey, the film offers a critical commentary on the contemporary post-communist world. Mother and daughter eke out a living on Viola's income (she also works on Sundays). When “Uncle Flórián” arrives to stay with stories of hard times, he takes all of Viola's savings and disappears. Viola, despite being commended for her resistance to the thugs, will probably lose her job as a result of her injuries. The lonely hearts clubs and the evangelists remain the last resort for those whom society has passed by.
The film's primary strength lies in its sophisticated and restrained style. Filmed in wide-screen, Kocsis focuses on images of separation. When the two women watch their regular television show—an Italian crime series—they sit side by side on a sofa as the camera observes them from the point of view of the television set. When Angéla brings Emil home, they assume similar positions. Angéla and Martina also face the camera for their meetings on the park bench. Corridor shots draw explicit parallels between the routines of home and work. But while the visual composition remains striking, it always remains subservient to observation. Critics have linked the film to Kaurismaki, Jarmusch, the Dardenne brothers, and Chantal Akerman, but, while this indicates something of the film's flavor, Kocsis's film is in no way derivative. Her principal concern throughout is with the inner reality of her characters.
Kocsis's interest in Asian cinema and in directors like Antonioni is readily apparent in her fastidious attention to composition. The down-at-heel and mundane surroundings are presented in compositions that become almost abstract. This applies not only to the flat and the toilets, but also to the walkway outside their flat, railway and motorway bridges, and the dilapidated park where Angéla and Martina meet. However, visual style is never allowed to dominate or draw attention to itself and consistently frames the action.
An interest in color is apparent throughout, although—unlike the Antonioni of The Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, 1964) and Blow-Up (1966)—the results are unobtrusive. The principal colors used are red and green. Viola is consistently dressed in red, the color of the coat she wears at the toilets. She uses a red towel to wrap up her hair and her wardrobe is full of red clothes. In her room at the toilets, as already mentioned, part of the décor consists of maroon colored background and the desk flower is red. When Angéla later takes on her role, red lights glow in the darkness. By contrast, Angéla is dressed consistently in green, an element mirrored in her fashion design that she hangs on the wall. This combined motif of red and green continues throughout the film and predominates in the scenes of the flat (both sitting room and kitchen). At the end of the film, Angéla dons her mother's red coat at the toilets and hangs up her green design on the wall.
The scenes at school contrast the green of the students' aprons and the blue of the sewing machine covers. Emil is predominantly in blue, Martina in pink, but when Emil comes to visit, he takes off his jacket to reveal a maroon pullover, thus maintaining the color balance and mood of the interior scenes. This concern with color is similarly mirrored in the balance of colors between vegetables in the supermarket and the supermarket shelves themselves, finally to be mirrored in the Aladdin's cave of deodorant sprays revealed in the film's final scenes.
The film rigorously excludes any use of non-diegetic music. Music is from the dance, the television, or the radio. Here, Nina Simone's “Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” is associated with Angéla. Viola opts for a dance from the lonely hearts club. When she listens to it at work and momentarily dances around in a dream world, she is rudely interrupted by the request “paper, please.”
While Kocsis emphasizes in interviews that the film is a portrayal of the relationship between mother and daughter, this rarely comes to the surface in dialogue. As Kocsis puts it: “Many people live without communicating or communicate only insignificant things… I didn't want to make a social film, but to deal with individual emotions, that which the mother and daughter feel, what they think and experience.”
Angéla's general teenage awkwardness is nothing special, and the immediate opening of all the windows on her mother's return from work is the only explicit indication of her disapproval. Her response to the night's stay by Uncle Flórián is, however, unambiguous, and when she and Emil knock over the box of Viola's correspondence with her lonely hearts contacts, she is deeply ashamed by what she finds. After telling her mother not to “bring anyone here,” she departs for Italy. The issue of her non-existent father is never touched on except by Martina, who observes, when her father forces her to stay in and work, that the absence of a father may not be such a bad thing.
Izabella Hegyi gives a remarkable performance as Angéla and, surprisingly, had had no professional training. Kocsis apparently tested 2,000 drama students, but finally opted for Hegyi, a real fashion student. While Hegyi gets most of the more obvious “acting” opportunities, the restrained and downplayed part of Viola was given to the well known actress, Júlia Nyakó. Here, Kocsis cast against type, using an attractive woman, whom one would not normally expect to find in such a job or, indeed, desperately searching for a man.
Of course, the motif of “fresh air,” despite the continuous opening of windows and testing of sprays, also stands for something that the characters are searching for in their own lives. In what can be taken as more obvious symbolism, one of the men, who gives Angéla a lift on her journey towards Rome, places her next to a hen in a covered cage. They are used to it, observes the driver, “they don't like the light—it makes them nervous.”
Fresh Air also has a sense of humor, conveyed principally in its detached and ironic observation of the world. The US evangelist and his Hungarian translator provide the most obvious target. But one could also instance Emil's gauche attempts at romance, Viola's dream dance at the toilets, the accidental choking of a client with deodorant spray, and delaying access for two male clients in urgent need. Perhaps the sole humorous scene in which Viola herself is a participant comes at the beginning of the film, when a man escorts her home after the dance. We hear him talking about a long-term relationship and eventually realize that he is talking about his dog. After paying compliments to Viola, he suggests that she needs “a decent, honest man” (like himself). Wouldn't a dog do just as well?—she replies dryly. And, of course, besides its carefully timed aesthetic “shock effect,” the cupboard of deodorants at the end of the film also provokes humor.
Kocsis, who had previously made three documentaries, including one about a factory girl, clearly feels the need to observe her characters without judgment. She also notes that she never uses close-ups, preferring long shots in which “spectators can choose what they want to look at.” Her portrait of shy, simple, and inarticulate people is respectful. Above all, she presents a portrait based on “…atmospheres, images, and colors.”
Fresh Air is a film that makes its impact through its authentic concern and unadorned presentation of its characters—which inevitably involves rejection of the requirements of the market. In 2006, it won her the award for Best First Feature at the Hungarian Film Week in Budapest, and the film was selected for the Semaine de la Critique at Cannes. It has gone on to achieve festival acclaim throughout the world.
1] All quotations from Ágnes Kocsis are from Fabienne Lemercier, “Hungarian blitz on the Croisette: Ágnes Kocsis—Director of Fresh Air ” in Cineuropa (14 May 2006). An edited version appears in “Fresh Air,” in The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival 18 October – 2 November 2006 (catalogue), ed. Paul Taylor (London: British Film Institute, 2006): 99.
Peter Hames, Staffordshire University
Fresh Air, Hungary, 2006
Color, 109 minutes
Director: Ágnes Kocsis
Screenplay: Andrea Roberti and Ágnes Kocsis
Cinematography: Ádám Fillenz
Music: Bálint Kovács
Editor: Tamás Kollányi
Sound: Attila Madaras
Cast: Izabella Hegyí, Júlia Nyakó, Anita Turóczi, Zoltán Kiss, Béla Stubnya, Miklós Nagy
Producer: Ferenc Pusztai
Production Company: KMH Film, Magyar Filmunió, Academy of Drama and Film
All images courtesy of Magyar Filmunió.
Ágnes Kocsis: Fresh Air (Friss Levego, 2006)
reviewed by Peter Hames© 2008