I'll admit it, I knew nothing about this film before the screening I attended beyond what I'd read quickly on IMDB. The summary listed there reads "György Pálfi's grotesque tale of three generations of men, including an obese speed eater, an embalmer of gigantic cats, and a man who shoots fire out of his penis."
It's hard not to be curious when confronted with a sentence like that, the last part in particular, but for some reason all I was expecting was a quirky, odd-ball film with some cheap effects and some even cheaper laughs. Instead I got one of the most brilliant and complex films I've seen in a long time.
Taxidermia opens with what I suspected would be the "money-shot", namely the flamethrowing penis. How do you top that? What else can Palfi put on the screen after seeing something that bizarre? What an incredible disservice I was doing to Palfi - he has so much up his sleeve it's mind-boggling, and to have assumed this would be a one-trick pony was so, so wrong.
Three generations of a vague 'family' feature, although who (or what) is the exact parent of whom is sometimes unclear, and in each case the couples themselves enjoy a shaky relationship.
There are three acts to the film - We start with a remote farmhouse during wartime, although the real war is being fought between the hair-lipped Morosgoványi (Csaba Czene) and his overwhelming sexual urges. He has no natural outlet, so derives a twisted sort of pleasure in all manner of extremely graphic and revolting ways. If two people are having sex, Palfi won't just show it; He will instead show you an extreme close up of two people having sex from the most unflattering angle possible leaving nothing to the imagination, with all the grunting and sweating you can bear. And inevitably, no good will come of it.
Eventually a child is born, bringing us to part two - the Competitive Eating Circuit in Communist-era Hungary. Just how much Palfi has invented here, and how much is based on research one can only guess. The attention to detail, the use of language ("go for the cross-swallow!") and above all the sheer brilliance of the sets and costumes combine to create an utterly convincing world. Gergely Trócsányi is superb as rising star Balatony Kálmán, stuffing his face along with many others for the chance to go to Norway and compete in the contest there (so bleak must Hungary have been at that time that Norway is spoken of almost as if it were paradise) and perhaps one day convince the IOC that eating is a sport. There is a quite sweet love story at the heart of this section, as well as some of the most disgusting eating (and vomiting) sequences ever seen. Watching a man tuck into a solid block of offal in aspic is not something I could do, and it was only through my fingers that I was able to read the subtitles.
The final section is the most harrowing and disturbing of all. The theme of stuffing - a penis into any hole going, ones face with food, a body with hay - reaches it's climax. There is a section towards the end reminiscent of Chris Cunningham's style (see his video for Bjork's All is Full of Love), in particular the close-ups, the exceptional camerawork, the focus on the minutae of a process or procedure - in this case the brutal excision of a body. The Taxidermist in question is the pathetic Balatony Lajoska (Marc Bischoff), son of the once great Kalman who is now reduced to eating nought but chocolate bars and growing giant cats, in some mad scheme to bring him fame once more. Lajoska's has the penultimate scene of the film, and it's the one that will stay with you the longest. It's so brilliantly concieved and executed, it would stand out as a piece of art on it's own.
The familial relationships in the film are shaky, hostile at times, yet they somehow maintain a vital cohesion. When one of the parts of the family is removed or dies, the remainder collapses. There are perhaps only a few truly likeable characters in the whole film - most are deserving of pity or disgust, and in general there is a great deal of sadness throughout.
But coupled with this is Palfi's affection for the things in life we normally turn away from. If someone takes a pee, he makes sure we can hear it loud and clear. People are hairy, sweaty and unpleasant. Organs shift and bubble. Vomit sprays endlessly from the mouths of people who have just eaten 45kg of caviar in an hour. And so on.
Yet this is not a "gross-out comedy" in any way, and I sincerely hope it is not marketed as such. This is instead a deeply unsettling look at family, at longing, and at death. An incredible work that will leave you troubled and deeply moved for a long time.