Reviewed in October 2008
Director: Kornél Mundruczó. Cast: Félix Lajkó, Orsolya Tóth, Lili Monori, Sándor Gáspár. Screenplay: Yvette Biro and Kornél Mundruczó.
Twitter Capsule: Artfully lensed, with some creeping power, but too many moves swiped from Festival Handbook of Slow-Build Morbidity

Photo © 2008 Proton Cinema/Essential Filmproduktion GmbH
Kornél Mundruczó's Delta opens with a gorgeous, darkly jewel-toned shot of the nectarine sunset over a sapphire river, an introduction both to the pivotal location of the ensuing narrative and to Mundruczó's prowess as a composer of images, as abetted by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély. This wordless, unpeopled shot continues for a few beats before Mundruczó follows it with its insistently drab obverse, a pale and desaturated shot of a white boat drawing toward the camera over dingy light-gray water. The linking emphasis on the river precludes a severe contrast between Nature and Man, but it's hard not to feel as though Delta is establishing a stark dichotomy between an idealized nature, or nature as it could be, and the mundane and despiritualized nature that actually is. Without suggesting that this framework proves fully consistent or altogether satisfying across the film, the opposition between romantic possibility and pale, scratchy, rotty reality nonetheless offers the most helpful lens I could find for perceiving what Mundruczó is getting across in this film, pork-barreled though it is with almost unforgivable slabs of dramatic inertia, stolid acting, and a gratuitous re-immersion in the old arthouse standbys of sexual violence and inflated visual rhetoric.

What happens in Delta is simple and frequently loathsome, and it's this, from start to finish: a laconic and shaggy blond (Félix Lajkó) arrives in a rural Hungarian village to visit his blowzy, maroon-haired barkeep of a mother (Lili Monori) and his busty, saucer-faced sister (Orsolya Tóth), though you couldn't charge this fellow with overplaying his familial enthusiasm. Sis, however, is so eager to ditch Mom and her blatantly boorish new lover (Sándor Gáspár) that she immediately packs her things to move with him to a small shack down the river, formerly their father's, which he plans to rehabilitate into a larger place, possibly a permanent home. Why she does this is triply unclear, because her brother seems close to unfazed by her companionship, it clearly pisses off the entire town, and the extra suitcase of clothes seems remarkably gratuitous given that she's going to keep wearing the same olive blouse and brown skirt for the rest of the film. Brother and sister do relocate, but not until after one of those arthouse-standard sexual assaults, tautologically described in the festival program as a "brutal rape," perpetrated by the stormy and salivating pseudo-stepfather ... though I will say that Delta shows a rare if somewhat baffling restraint in filming the entire rape in one extreme longshot from about a quarter-mile away. Brother and sister, their names withheld for maximum Elementality, build a thin pier across the river delta, which inconveniences the entire malign community, who have to sail 300° around the neighboring island to reach these outward bounders and collect the gal to help bury the town drunk (progenitor, I might add, of the most astonishingly slurred and raspy speech I have ever heard in a cinema). The cottage gets built, and its rustically lustrous, albeit still the sort of simple affair that lets plenty of wind through the vertical planks, and there's nothing to dull the roar of the bullfrogs at night. Meanwhile, brother and sister start paving their own cement garden, if you get my drift, or if you've ever seen a European movie where spiritual malaise and/or communal scapegoating give rise to a beast with two backs but only one genome. The town, having seen many such films, fulminate with the force of their morbid presumptions, and when they are invited to the humble fishery and shed for a housewarming party of fish, bread, and liquor, they surround the woman and gorge her on vodka-soaked melon before booting her into the water, and then they stab the brother on his pencil-thin pier and shove him into the drink. The next morning, an orange life vest drifts along on the current while the early passages of Schubert's Death and the Maiden roll like a hungry stomach on the soundtrack. The sister's orphaned pet, a turtle, the only fully benign presence in the movie and also the fastest-moving, gambols to the river's edge and bobs into the water like that crocodile at the start of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.

Mundruczó seems to have thought a fair bit about Malick, since the rudimentary blend of sibling intimacy and pastoral beauty are cornerstones, too, of Days of Heaven. An even more potent point of reference is Mexico's Carlos Reygadas, whose Battle in Heaven and Silent Light have also married their exquisite visual eyes to dour worldviews and, in Battle's case, catastrophic finales with strong elegiac overtones. On first pass, the key difference is that class politics, which power the beautiful, terrible, unhappily hackneyed fury in a film like Battle in Heaven, gives way in Delta to a baser indictment of "human" jealousy, suspicion, and brutality, though Mundruczó has at least had the complicating sense to make the townspeople correct in their inferences and to place the erstwhile protagonists somewhere on the same continuum of blunted interiority and obtuse decision-making. Mundruczó avoids a mania for binaries—say, between two glorified innocents and their cancerous enclave—despite his repeated tendency to block his widescreen frame into two sharply delineated vertical halves: a kitchen on one half and a pigsty on the other; a half-finished wall on one side and the luminous natural vista it occludes still visible on the other; the dock on one side of an overhead shot and, on the other, the open trapdoor leading down to the tethered riverboat.

Delta tempts us with these strong dichotomies over and over, and just as there is no gainsaying the under-developed and cruelly calibrated story, I cannot allow my undercurrents of admiration for the movie to eclipse a severe fetishization of its own surface and a general absolutist tendency in its conceptions, both of which I found distasteful. The evil of the townspeople, the corruption of the mother, the sublimity of the delta, the implacability of that turtle, the paradigmatic malevolence of the rape, the moroseness of the central characters—their distilled essences are cartoonish at least as often as they are "pure" or "compressed." And the dialogue is unsalvageable. As if we didn't already grasp the siblings' preternatural alienation from the world, especially the brother's, we are privy to conversations like these:

"Has your hair always been that long?"
"I don't know."

"What's that silver cup?"
"I don't want to talk about it."

"Many people came!"

But before I give in entirely to the powerful urge to be facetious about this movie, to deny the exercising pull I felt from this movie even when its clichés and severities made that pull tricky to attribute, let's say this for Delta, and let's keep it in mind when we visit the movies: it is not nothing to paint with light and texture, or to work in such deep registers of color without giving in to garishness. Many movies—of which the risibly underlit and self-impressed A Lake furnished an inglorious representative case during this same day of festival programming—attempt the sorts of metaphysical weight and aesthetic rapture that Delta so obviously chases but with little of Mundruczó's visual and rhythmic sense or his subtle array of comfortable modes. Filming in different styles and arranging sequences according to different templates is like mastering different handwritings or learning to cook in different cuisines or sing in different registers, and all the more tricky when you're trying to marshal those diversities into a manuscript or a meal or a recital that must hang together as a workable whole of harmonic parts. With visual beauty and thematic puerility as its unifying forces, Delta ranges across a multitude of grammars. Naturalism as a style of acting, directing, and filming the human community alternates with a flat, proscenium parade of into-the-camera gazes, as insolent and candid as in a Fassbinder film. Mundruczó experiments with protractions of time, both through cutting (e.g., the morning after the siblings become lovers, a sort of psychic-romantic expansion of time) and through lack of cutting (e.g., any number of landscape and maritime shots, where time passes in its purest form). Erdély's camera executes some sinuous and evocative moments, especially impressive when the perspective is borne along on the rippled surface of the water, as in a creepy centripetal prowl around the anxious-looking fisherman in his boat, and though Delta often makes the ambitious filmmaker's mistake of amping up the sound to certify a clumsy interest in audio textures per se, some ironic counterpoints make vivid impressions, like the sound of woodsawing over a glinting sunrise or the bayou fiddles over this very un-Louisiana delta. And as I have signalled elsewhere in this review, the dichotomies in Mundruczó's visual plots can carry more than one resonance, just as a broad thematic like Idealism vs. Reality can break in unexpected ways. Surely the brother and sister are benightedly attempting some sort of impossibly sanctified refuge from a township, an ethics, and a family history they wrongly believe they can abjure, and they pay the price for their fantasy. Less obviously, though, Delta suggests that the very grandiosity of the town's revenge is a romantically inflated idea, the final word in moral censorship, and it is the compulsion to make fully clear their scorn for what they (correctly) believe the brother and sister are up to that drives them to make fully grotesque the scale and manner of their ostensibly "moral" protest. Delta, unquestionably on the side of the incestuous lovers, works as a critique of fundamentalism that avoids a roseate regard for the victims of fundamentalist violence.

I didn't say it was a subtle critique, and I still wonder how FIPRESCI, the international critics' society, watched the better part of 20 movies at Cannes and decided that this one embodied the apogee of craft and artistic potential. But Delta, quite easy to laugh at, and deserving, at least, of impatience if not contempt, has a keen eye and a flexibility of expression as well as subtle intimations of depth that are worth sounding out. Grade: C+

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
I've tried to give this film as much aesthetic benefit of the doubt as possible, but I can't avert the strong sense that if no one had made it, no one would miss it. Mundruczó handles his template capably, but it's too interchangeable with comparable, pessimistic art films without bringing enough that's new to the table.

Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize

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