2006Director: Agnes Kocsis
Cast: Izabella Hegyi, Julia Nyako, Anita Turoczi
pposites attract” has long been milked dry as a theme, but tirelessly reworked because the formula is so easily moldable: take two wildly dissonant characters, collide at will, observe mayhem. Agnes Kocsis, a remarkably promising young Hungarian auteur, subverts the homily in her debut feature Fresh Air, applying something along the lines of “sames repel” to a mother and daughter who, despite obvious shared traits, can’t communicate. Compared to Chantal Akerman and the Dardenne Bros. in program notes, no doubt for her focus on the minutiae of working class women’s lives, Kocsis feels significantly more like later Jim Jarmusch, radiating wry disaffection and an embrace of the loner ethos.
Unlike Jarmusch, Kocsis strips the loner of any hip pretense; its status is the accidental result of social dysfunction, not an ethical code. If recluses always say they prefer it that way but only mean it half the time, Kocsis is interested in the less sincere, more genuinely lonely half. Bathroom attendant Viola (Julia Nyako) and her petulant daughter Angela (Izabella Hegyi) display a trait that looks by turn sympathetic and neurotic: they pine for companionship, but recoil when it approaches. They’re not unhappy so much with their lives as their own fickleness. But not only can mother and daughter not solve their problems with a hug and a cry; they can’t converse over a paragraph. Arguments consisting of two or three lines feel like the abridged versions of epic battles gradually eroded to nonsense.
The extra layer of social ineptitude renders the Jarmusch-like aesthetic more organic than its predecessor: the silences are charged with awkward tension, rather than Zen fortitude. Kocsis’ use of music also one-ups Jarmisch—no small feat—as a manifestation of the emotions bubbling around in the characters’ heads, unable to surface except vicariously through their art of choice. It’d be overwrought if the images didn’t provide a lucid counterpoint to the sounds: Angela listens to Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” with pensive Bambi eyes, all the while made totally opaque by her motionlessness.
Production design is equally crucial. Kocsis primarily uses long takes so we can observe all the little details in a frame; she’s like a novelist who knows a protagonist’s overcoat is of equal importance to his facial expression. At best, she uses single takes to form sharp syntheses of sound, image, and character observation, as when Angela’s friend Marina (Anita Turoczi), looking bitter and pale, is ranting about getting grounded, all the while dressed in a winter outfit consisting of around 10 shades of pink, and suddenly her cell phone rings: it’s a synth MIDI take on a funereal procession.
Indeed, Kocsis has a habit of taking clichés and alleviating them via lavishly exaggerated compositions: we can trust that, should Angela’s beau try the old yawn-and-grope technique, he’ll be sitting so far away as to heighten the absurd disingenuousness of the move, and that if one character goes stalking after another, she’ll become part of a gigantic tableau of voyeurs, apprehensively watching one apprehensively watch another. It’s moments like these, when the particulars of where to place actors and the size of furniture inflect the story, in which Kocsis briefly severs the shackles of her influences and simply shows the mark of a rock-solid artist who knows her way around the medium.
But despite the surface irony, what sells me on Kocsis is her well-earned stab at catharsis. If there’s anything cynicism has taught her, it’s that the mere concept of a good deed is stale and unrewarding. Like her director, Angela is allowed to impose herself on the limitations of a happy ending: this is redemption made stark, personal, and weird. Not for nothing does the girl’s name evoke the heavens, but she wears her martyrdom shyly, as if it’s just another layer of winter clothing.
Fresh Air is currently playing in select film festivals.