Certain subjects just have a weight and an authority to them. When handled properly, they shimmer with dramatic grace, completely balancing their controversy and their confrontation with insight and invention. The results are almost always interesting, usually entertaining, and telling about the individuals involved in the issue. They also tend to reflect the world in which they live as well. The near-automatic areas concerned include concepts like rape, child abuse, teenage sex, pregnancy and the unexpected death of a loved one. Given their well meaning due, these premises promise a kind of cathartic reconfiguration, where we learn about life and the individuals in it in a way that opens our eyes and our hearts. In the end, the harm is still horrible, but we've come to a kind of consensus, a better understanding of the wounded world around us.
But sometimes, even the best laid cinematic plans can get confused and misused, resulting in an additional injury to the narrative insult occurring. Many people make fun of the Lifetime style drama because it pushes aside subtlety and substance to pick apart the more prurient, lurid aspects of issues. Others argue that the near pornographic procedures of someone like Larry Clark dull and derail all attempts at serious social commentary (not that Kids, or Ken Park are portraits of restrained storytelling). Somewhere in the middle lies the artistic artifice of something like Down By Love. Using an idea that is as reprehensible as it is realistic (a young woman's affair with a much older family member) and then shoving it into one of the most pretentious depictions in recent memory, this experiment in emotional detachment wants to win us over with a unique take on an unyielding theme. Too bad it never succeeds, not even on the most basic filmic level.
Eva is your typical girl, interrupted. Or maybe a better term for her would be woman, unborn. She lives in a nice apartment and works for an animation firm painting cartoon cells. Yet her personal life is one big corrupted mess. When she was a child, her parents were killed in a car accident. Relatives Tibor and Klara adopted her, taking her into their home. While there, she and Tibor began an affair that has lasted now 11 years. Eva was even shipped off to a convent when the scandal was uncovered. Now, all she wants is for Tibor to leave his wife and kids, take a job in Argentina, and move them both away to live happily ever after. But as the days turn into weeks, it is clear Tibor will not leave his family. Incensed, and a little lost as to what to do, she seeks advice from friends and ex-lovers. They cannot guide her. Eva decides to confront Klara, but can't find the inner strength to do it. But when she learns that Tibor has been lying to her all along, she suddenly decides to get even with everyone. If her plan works, she won't be the only one brought Down By Love.
Down By Love is a formulaic love tragedy corrupted by a hackneyed directorial device. It is more or less a monologue by our main (and only) character, told in such a stifled manner that we never once connect with her conundrum. It is a film bathed in superfluous symbolism and obtuse tactics, and it tells a story that we've heard a hundreds time before, usually offered in far more fetching ways. Whatever director Tamás Sas is trying to say about mental illness, emotional obsession and illicit, near-incestual relationships gets drowned in a desire to play confused and cockeyed with the facts. One minute his heroine is a strong, capable lady, the next she is reliving her teenage angst. At any given moment her married stepfather lover is the light of her life, the next instant she is mooning for an ex-boyfriend who she felt was a sort of security blanket. While it never announces its intent to be a psychological thriller, or character driven case study, Down By Love eventually ends up being one girl's journey to the brink of complete insanity. Whether she goes over the edge or not depends on how you interpret the convoluted finale.
But before we reach the ending, we have to wade through a great deal of melodrama, with mellow being the proper term. Sas is casual with his concepts, afraid to give us too much information, less we make up our mind about Eva from the get go. Certainly, if we had known that she was screwing her stepfather in an 11-year affair that started when she was 13, certain stigmas and significance would be awarded to Eva's escalating erratic actions. We would get a window into her pained planet, realizing how desperate and deranged she is, or is becoming. All the weird fantasy asides and one-sided conversations would provide an opportunity to examine and explain her personality and her problems. But just like the manner is which he stages his story (more on that in a moment), Sas is unsure of how exactly to let us into Eva's unhinged universe. Constantly careening between hinting and haranguing, from obvious statements to far too subtle suggestions, he drives a wedge between Eva and the audience. We never get a chance to be let in, and she never approaches us to open the door.
The same stifling feeling comes from the overt narrative device employed by Sas (and, one assumes, co-writer Can Togay). Eva is never seen directly interacting with anyone. Sure, she answers the phone, talks to people through the door, and engages in conversations with her lover Tibor that may actually be real (we see a body moving about the apartment) or fake (it could all be in her mind). That we never truly see another person, only profiles through filtered glass, voices on the other end of the phone, or shadowy shapes awkwardly framed, is supposed to throw suspicion upon everything Eva does. Are these interactions real? Are they part of her reality? Or is this all just a facet of her fracturing, fragile mental state, the sum total of being a middle aged man's slutty sex toy for the last 11 years? We never know and, frankly, Sas doesn't care. He is too busy building barriers, finding ways to keep those who Eva (allegedly) interacts with from being seen, to worry about an answer. While there may be a method to this madness – when we meet everyone at the end, there is impact and power in the moment of reveal – but it's all for naught within the true narrative strands of Down By Love's lamentations.
For a while, we forget the dopey device and try to focus on Eva's story. But there again, Sas lets us down. Instead of finding an idiosyncratic way of making his heroine's life a mess, all we end up with is an obsessed girl guided by guilt and abuse into fawning for a foolish older man. The stepfather angle is almost completely dismissed, like it's a common place, acceptable thing. No one once takes her to task for continuing to have sex with her relative. While "stepfather" is a term used often in Down By Love's translation, the better interpretation of the Hungarian would be 'legal guardian'. Eva's parents are killed in a car accident – relative Tibor, along with his wife Klara were in the car following them - and the couple becomes responsible for the orphaned child. So instead of the stink of remarriage and rape, we're back to the little slut lost ideal again, where a mutual need for affection drove a teenager and her custodian to fits of fornication. This is supposed to be love on a pure carnal level, no matter how corrupt or creepy it truly is. And since Tibor's side of the story is never fully explained (we pick up dribs and drabs along the way, but never anything concrete), he is never fully blamed either.
Indeed, the overall tone of Down By Love is that Eva is just a stupid misguided girl with far too many mature man stars in her eyes. The rest of the world, and this director as well, seem determined to prove what a complete and utter fool she is over and over again. Men who come to her apartment are constantly attacking her (indeed, in one foul mystery of a scene, she is forced to blow the black sheep son of a neighbor) and the intimates she talks to on the phone dismiss her puppy love rantings as the juvenile junk of a cow-eyed adolescent. If it wants to say something insightful about growing up and taking responsibility for your lot in life, Down By Love has a strange way of putting things. Indeed, throughout this numbing narrative Eva is the constant butt of ridicule and reevaluation, always under scrutiny and made to look asinine by some aspect of her fantasy world. But since we never get any balance, since she is just a simp from frame one on, it is hard to champion her changes. Instead of a heroine, Eva is a zero-ine, a nonentity saddled with carrying an entire storyline by her vacant, vacuous self.
Actress Patricia Kovács is no great help either. Her mannerisms are so slight, her character interpretation so superficial that we fear she will blow away with the next stiff wind, and not in a good, ethereal way. Eva is supposed to be a mess, a totally unhappy lass living for a man who will never leave his wife and marry her. She is supposed to be having her eyes opened by the experience and exchanges we witness in Down By Love, to slowly understand the pointlessness of her long term love affair – and lover, for that manner. But for Kovács, Eva is all perky hairstyles and granny glasses, a Bridget Jones for the pedophilic. Hoping to suggest the far too youthful aspect of this affair, Kovács is constantly dressed in teenage fashions, acting like an imbecilic child as she kisses pieces of clothing before putting them away. If this is meant to suggest a stunted maturity, it doesn't work. Instead, it's an artificial device, a way of giving us a little psychological shorthand without having to get to the meat of the mania. Indeed, most of the time, Eva seems settled and secure (handling a rush job for her employer with somewhat ease). Had Kovács and Sas developed the script more, found a way to remove the cinematic wizardry from her personal interactions, Down By Love may have been salvageable.
Yet, as it stands, this is a muddled, meandering movie without a great deal of punch or power. As a subject matter, incest and older man/younger woman movies have the ability to reflect both the reviled and the resolute about the people involved. They can sketch out the strangled need for love – ANY love – while uncovering secret sins and societal taboos. But Down By Love really can't handle that truth. For Sas and his cast, the notion of underage sex involving a much older man is both disgusting and desirable, a fact of daily life that has its problems, but its providence as well. That Eva resorts to some very outrageous - not to mention convoluted, constructive and creative - means of resolving her dilemma is like a forced false bravado moment at the end of a sleepwalking story. It's supposed to finally showcase everything that's been hinted at for the past 90 minutes. But since we haven't been prepared for the path she will take (tragedy has always been in the air, but not the way in which Eva works it out), we are almost totally unaffected by the outcome. No one will shed a tear for poor Eva, either in grief or relief. She is destined to be an unfulfilled promise, an opportunity squandered by a director with too much meddling discourse on his brain. Down By Love could have worked – indeed this story has succeeded elsewhere. But Sas and Kovács just don't know where to begin or how to properly proceed.
For a long time, this critic argued that Shadows Run Black, a crappy little slasher film released by Artisan back in the day, had the worst DVD transfer EVER. Looking like a bad VHS bootleg of a full frame nightmare, the horrible, hideous image of that film inspired fits of rage when attempting to view it. Well, Down By Love has succeeded that shitty picture by a million miles. This is, without a doubt, the worst digital remastering ever committed to an aluminum disc.
Now, during the occasional daylight scene, the print is pretty good – colors are correct and details definable. But since the vast majority of this movie exists in a dimly lit apartment with very little direct lighting, the 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen image goes into compressed mess Hell. Little gray dots of grain fill the darkness. Muddy, near indecipherable action occurs in a blur. Looking like a pirate print of a major motion picture you'd pick up on a corner stand in Manhattan, this terrible video presentation by MQM should be immediately withdrawn from distribution. If people are supposed to view and understand what is happening in his film, director Sas is being totally undermined by this miserable DVD offering.
Frankly, as long as some sound, ANY sound comes out of the speakers during the presentation of Down By Love, the aural elements would far surpass the vile video aspects of this release. Unfortunately, the sonic situation is also a little suspect. While the Dolby Digital Stereo is more or less understandable in the dialogue scenes, there is a great deal of hiss, a random high pitched electronic din that runs through most of the opening scenes, and a scattershot approach to the score by director Sas. All of this truly perplexes your perceptions of the cinematic experience. Now Sas does provide some unusual backing tracks for his scenes (this may be the first film to feature a didgeridoo solo as part of its soundtrack), but the noticeable noise cannot be part of the plan. It is way too distracting, and doesn't build up the tension one would assume it would. And a word about the subtitles. Full of grammatical and spelling errors, often a step or two behind the action (that is if they appear at all) and usually flitting by far too rapidly, they too make Down By Love an inexcusable experience.
This is bare bones digital distribution at its most annoying. No trailers or filmographies. No information about the cast or crew. Not even the merest hint at what this movie was made for, or how it came about, or who was involved. Just the film and a scene selection menu. Not the greatest set of selling points for an unknown foreign film that few will care about otherwise.
It is hard to say if either a better technical experience, or a more polished cinematic one would make Down By Love any better. It seems that director Tamás Sas is convinced that there is nothing really wrong with such a startling May to December fable, even though he also hints at the pain and problems such an age variance in sexual congress causes. No, Down By Love is really all about its narrative device, the irritating, unnecessary inability to see the individuals that Eva interacts with. Done in hopes that this will instill a sense of mystery and mental illness to the story all, it does is get us angry and confused. And in truth, it just makes the scenes claustrophobic, requiring actress Patricia Kovács to try and carry this story all by herself. And she may be a strong enough performer to pull it off.
But again, Sas and the script never really give her a chance to shine. The dialogue is desperate and the dramatic less than logical. In the end, this may just be another amateur attempt at showing a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But with a subject as serious as statutory rape, underage girls being deflowered by much older men, and perverted pledges of love, our narrative needs to play by at least some of the realistic rules. But Down By Love is all suggestion and very little substance. It's a thoroughly frustrating and flawed entertainment.
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