Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Pleasant Days
Szep Napok : Kornel Mondruzco : Hungary 2002 : 100 mins
A promising but flawed second feature from 26-year-old director Mondruzco (who also wrote the script with Viktoria Petranyi and Sandor Szoter) Pleasant Days starts off strongly, only to loses its way in the middle section but then, when it does find a new direction in the final scenes, you end up wishing it had remained lost. The title is, of course, bitterly (and all too predictably) ironic: the days we see unfold in a medium-sized unindentified Hungarian town (actually Kaposvar) are anything but pleasant.
The summer weather is warm, but, as in Austrias Dog Days, its an oppressive stifling heat all the more so because Hungary, just like Austria, is entirely landlocked. Claustrophobia seems to be a pervasive national characteristic in this land which boasts one of the worlds highest per-capita suicide rates: surly teenager Peter, known as Petike (Tamas Polgar), is especially fed up with his lot. Just out of jail and with zero prospects beyond a vague idea of escaping to the seaside, he mooches around the local launderette where his sister Maria (Kata Weber, strikingly resembling a brunette Chloe Sevigny), works alongside petite, pregnant blonde Maja (Orsolya Toth). Petike drifts towards a relationship with Maja after she gives birth in the back room of the launderette but soon finds himself entangled in her complicated love-life
Mondruzco sketches Petikes world with a close attention his actors (close-ups abound) and to external detail: t-shirts are emblazoned with ironic slogans like surf and cute & wild. Props and actions are more important than dialogue for these inarticulate, dissatisfied young people who mainly communicate in deeply meaningful looks and stares at one stage, Petike takes a bath inside a washing-machine, and later wears boxing gloves in the bath as he washes his hair. In a series of these fragmentary episodes, Polgar seems to get right inside Petikes head he’s never quite sympathetic but, with his naturally insolent set of features, he projects a compellingly dark, brooding energy that’s engaging to watch.
Theres clearly a heavy reliance on improvisation involved Mondruzcos estimate is two-thirds and this makes for a believable, if occasionally awkward vision of Hungarian youth. But its very difficult to make this kind of loose improvisation stretch to feature length – it can’t be a coincidence that, in the most successful recent example of European teen-anomie, School Trip, director Henner Winckler demanded his young cast rigidly adhere to their script. Pleasant Days starts running into problems as it tries to develop a narrative around Petike, Maria, Maja and Majas various other lovers: for one (fairly crucial) thing, its hard to keep track of who’s who and whats what.
The characters ongoing sexual frustrations reach a startlingly violent climax, meanwhile, that jarringly forces the audience to re-evaluate its view of Petike. Soon after this spectacularly bleak sequence, there’s a very sudden tragedy involving a major character that’s equally difficult to digest. It feels as though the director and his co-scriptwriters have lost control of their material, allowing it to veer off down arbitrarily nightmarish paths that don’t do justice to the characters they’ve so painstakingly developed leaving a nasty taste in the mouth as the credits roll.
19th August 2002
(seen 15th, Filmhouse Edinburgh Edinburgh Film Festival)
For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.
by Neil Young