György Pálfi: Taxidermia (2006)
reviewed by Ivan Sanders© 2008
Oversexed, Overstuffed, Over the Top: György Pálfi's Taxidermia (2006)
Some Hungarian critics have proclaimed Taxidermia an extraordinary, if peculiar, aesthetic achievement (Báron; Bán). Others contend that what you need for it is not so much a strong aesthetic sense but a strong stomach. I first saw Taxidermia two years ago in Budapest at the annual presentation of new Hungarian films. A number of people walked out of the screening and I understand this happened at many subsequent showings of the film. But Taxidermia was also voted best Hungarian film of 2006 in Budapest, and since then it has been recognized internationally, garnering prizes at various film festivals. Serious film critics in Hungary have discoursed eruditely on the film's stunning visual effects and the profound meaning behind them (Galantai; Zsigmond). Tartan Film, the film's British distributor, by comparison, is banking on its lurid, stomach-churning images, billing Taxidermia as “hilariously sick and outrageously deviant … [a] gross-out visual feast … shock cinema at its best.”
Taxidermia is György Pálfi's second feature film. His first, Hukkle (2002), also raised eyebrows. Shot as a documentary nature film, Hukkle—the onomatopoeic Hungarian word denoting the sound of a hiccup—tells the story (based on actual events) of a group of women in a village who systematically poison their husbands. The soundtrack carries various natural and mechanical noises, but no intelligible dialogue. Thus, the depiction of the horrifying goings-on is completely dispassionate; the events appear to be nothing more, or less, than the struggle for dominance that is everywhere in nature.
Human physicality is György Pálfi's main preoccupation and terrain in Taxidermia, as it is for such prominent contemporary Hungarian writers as Péter Nádas and Lajos Parti Nagy (some of the latter's stories served as the basis for the film). Pálfi breaks new ground and old taboos; he literally digs into flesh, human and animal, concentrating on guts and gore, and the bodily fluids responsible for the ebb and flow of life—blood, sweat, mucus, semen, excrement. So the images are in turn repulsive, pornographic, clinical, and strangely beautiful. For a film that has its share of bizarre and extreme situations, grotesque characters, and in general an air of the surreal about it, Taxidermia tells in traditional linear fashion the story of three generations of Hungarian men in three distinctly different periods between the 1940s and the present, evoking each with robust realism.
The first one we meet is the lowly, hapless Vendel Morosgoványi, a lieutenant's orderly at a lonely country outpost. It is wartime, indeed the final throes of a war in which Hungary is going to end up on the losing side, though the lieutenant and his fellow officers drink to “final victory.” Given the lieutenant's surliness and his melancholy musing about the primacy of the female sex organ, he can't have much faith in that victory. He torments and terrorizes his underling, and the hare-lipped orderly is not treated any better by members of his superior's household. This wretched simpleton escapes into florid sexual fantasies involving the female members of the lieutenant's family and based on glimpses caught while doing what he is not supposed to: peeping. His more spectacular masturbatory experiences include ejaculating jets of flame and shooting (sexually) for the stars. The seriously oversexed and lamentably underseduced Vendel does have his tender and sentimental side. As a much-abused son of the people, he should be steeped in folk wisdom and folklore. Earlier literary incarnations of such figures would have drawn from these sources. Ironically, when Vendel sings, the song is from an enormously popular musical play, a Singspiel written at the turn of the 20th century and based on Sándor Petöfi's classic 19th century narrative poem, János vitéz (John the Hero). In one of his dreams a pop-up version of Andersen's fairy tale, The Little Match Girl, comes alive. Both the song and the fairy tale are tearjerkers and borderline kitsch—just right for Hungary in 1944. Yet tradition and continuity are also suggested in this first part of the film. One of the lovelier montages shows an old wooden tub, which over the years and decades had been used not only for bathing but as a bed, a bassinet, a catafalque, a trough in which bread was kneaded and carved-up pigs stored.  Such images are straight out of family novels.
The second part of the film, in spite of outlandish and nauseating details, is a hilarious parody of “existing socialism,” its obsession with victory, its hero worship, its twisted nationalism—indeed, it is a send-up of the shabby, dishonest, pathetic nature of the entire enterprise. Competitive eating, which in America is associated with country fairs or amusement parks where the object of the game is to see who can wolf down more hamburgers or guzzle more beer, is in Pálfi's film a deadly serious Olympic event. Once this is established, the race to the top, which includes the dramas and pitfalls of competitive sports, follows familiar patterns. But because the basic premise is so wild, the whole thing is screamingly funny. Yet there are poignant moments even in a world of phony rhetoric and choreographed reality. The romance of the son, the enormous Kálmán Balatony, and the equall y outsized Gizi Aczél, a speed-eater from a canning factor y, is real and touching, despite all the grotesqueries.
The third part of the film, in which we meet Lajos Balatony, the son of Kálmán, is a parod y of an otherwise conventional but under the circumstances freakish father-son conflict. Kálmán Balatony has become obscenely obese; he can't move anymore and just sits, Buddha-like, in his apartment, recalling his past triumphs as a speed-eater and railing against his puny taxidermist son, whom he sees as a “carcass stuffer.” Kálmán saves his affection for his cats, which he hopes to fatten-up. Lajos appears to be successful at what he does, but his alienation and loneliness is almost total; his feeble attempts at making contact are not even acknowledged. The world he lives in is the cool, and also cold, impassive, anything-goes post-communist world of Hungary, with its well-stocked supermarkets and indifferently polite cashiers, creepy hobbyists (the “doctor” who wants a stuffed human embryo as a trinket for his key chain), and sophisticated, stylish, and utterly blasé culture consumers (the select group of invited guests, all in white, in a museum at the end of the film).
The three major characters in Taxidermia—Vendel, Kálmán, and Lajos—are victims. For one thing, they are all handicapped: Vendel has his hare lip, K álmán is gargantuan, Lajos is a ninety-pound weakling. But more importantly, they are what they are because of where they come from and the world in which they live. The personal freedom of each is severely limited, yet in a very small area, in an interior space that is only theirs, they exercise it. Still, all three come to a terrible and violent end: Vendel is shot to death; Kálmán is killed and partially devoured by his beloved, overgrown cats; and Lajos decapitates himself with a device of his own design. In this generational film, the last member of the family is the unhappiest and the most hopeless. He is also the most self-aware, knowing that he carries within him the painful and perverse legacies of the past. In addition, he becomes aware of his own insignificance, of the fact that others find it so easy to look through him, not to see him. His profession must be seen in this light. He needs to preserve, to mummify that which he loves and hates, including his father, who after his death is properly stuffed and mounted along with his killer cats. In the end, with the aid of a machine, Lajos performs an auto-vivisection and taxidermic preparation of his own self, and in his last conscious moment, a guillotine-like device chops off his head. It is difficult enough to conceive of something like this happening, let alone to see it enacted. Yet there it is on the screen, shown to us in excruciatingly minute, naturalistic detail.
At the very end of the film, Lajos's replica is transformed into a work of art and displayed in a museum, looking more attractive than his real self ever did—even though, through a malfunction in the mechanism he used, not only is his head missing, but his arms as well. The work is described as resembling an “archaic torso.” We may be reminded of a poem by the great Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, entitled “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” whose first lines read:
We did not know his legendary head
in which his eyeballs ripened. But
his torso still glows like a candelabrum.
The poem's last line contains an often-quoted admonition. “…there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life” (“Du mußt dein Leben ändern”). If György Pálfi did have this admonition, this famous poem in mind, it would be the only glimmer of hope in what is ultimately a dark and devastating film.
1] The tub is also where Vendel makes passionate love to his superior's wife, lying on an eviscerated pig. The film doesn't make it clear whether this is pure fantasy or if Vendel does impregnate the lieutenant's not so young wife. According to the artistic and mythic logic of the story, the baby K álmán (who will carr y the lieutenant's family name, Balatony) was indeed conceived in that tub over the body of a fattened pig, and he has a little pig's tail to show for it, a tail that is unceremoniously snipped off with a pair of pliers by Lieutenant Balatony right after the baby's birth. Only after doing this can he accept the child as his (he had blown out his orderly's brains nine months earlier). But then, in the second part, we see the boy K álmán with a different mother. So his lineage remains shrouded in mystery.
Bán, Zsófia. “Szabadság, megeszem” (Freedom—I Eat it Up). Mozgó Világ (November 2006).
Báron, György. “A rchaikus torzó.” Élet és Irodalom (3 November 2006).
Galantai, László. “A Balatoni-ház” (The Balatony House). Filmkultúra (December 2006).
Zsigmond, Nóra. “Taxidermia.” Filmkultúra (January 2007).
Ivan Sanders, Columbia University
Taxidermia, Hungary, Austria, and France, 2006
Color, 91 minutes
Director: György Pálfi
Scriptwriters: György Pálfi, Szófia Ruttkay, based on stories by Lajos Parti Nagy
Cinematography: Gergely Pohárnok
Art Director: Veronika Merlin
Music: Amon Tobin
Cast: Csaba Czene, Gergely Trócsányi, Piroska Molnár, Adél Stanczel, Marc Bischoff, Gábor Máté, Zoltán Koppány, Géza D. Hegedűs, Erwin Leder
Producers: Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu, Emilie Georges, Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Production: Eurofilm Stúdió, Amour Fou Filmproduktion, La Cinéfacture, Memento Films Production
All stills courtesy of Magyar Filmunió
György Pálfi: Taxidermia (2006)
reviewed by Ivan Sanders© 2008