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Budapest Noir

Menemsha Films // Unrated // April 21, 2020
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 25, 2020 | E-mail the Author
The year is 1936. The Hungarian Prime Minister has just come back from Germany in a pine box and tensions are high when it comes to Jewish refugees. Zsigmond Gordon (Kristian Kolovratnik) has recently left American and returned to Hungary, picking up his crime beat for the local paper, but a bit wearier and more jaded. When a young woman turns up dead in the part of town where the sex workers make their money, everyone looks at it as an open-and-shut case, but something about it bugs Zsigmond, and it's not just his own brief connection to the deceased. With the help of his old photographer girlfriend Krisztina (Reka Tenki), back in Hungary after a brush with the Nazis, Zsigmond starts to kick over some rocks looking for the truth.

Budapest Noir is often admirable but rarely exciting, constructing a fairly standard tale of wrongdoing among the upper class with skill but no panache. Director Eva Gardos and screenwriter Andras Szeker certainly have a grasp on the tropes of the genre, and they are competent filmmakers, but the movie feels like less than the sum of its familiar parts, invoking those familiar genre beats without investing them with much life.

Szeker's screenplay is simultaneously Budapest's best and weakest asset. Whether it was Szeker's own inclination, writing a noir-flavored mystery in the 21st century, Gardos' influence as a female director, or both, the film has what feels like a feminist streak running through it. The film dispatches with the femme fatale, opting instead for a bittersweet rekindling of Zsigmond and Krisztina's romance, with a particular focus on how Zsigmond doesn't seem to notice Krisztina's attempts to get him to commit to her. As the mystery takes Zsigmond deeper into the odd corners of Hungary, he also encounters Margo Voros (Kata Dobo), a high-class brothel owner; Fanny Szollosy (Franciska Torocsik), the frazzled-seeming wife of boxing club owner Baron Andras Szollosy (Janos Kulka), and various other women that Gardos and Szeker have appreciable interest in exploring as dimensional characters. Torocsik, in particular, only has a few scenes but makes the most out of them.

On the other hand, both Gardos' direction and Szeker's script lacks a crucial amount of urgency, plodding along in such a way that makes 95 minutes feel like over two hours. A brief car chase sequence and an early fistfight raise the pulse a little bit, but they're all-too-brief diversions in an otherwise frustratingly languid film. The film also runs into the natural dissonance that comes from modern filmmaking technology mixing with old-fashioned styles and tones; the brightly-lit Budapest location shooting might be a choice (Gardos seems to almost intentionally avoid the actual high-contrast shadows that are closely associated with noir, perhaps as a way of showing that the corruption here is out in broad daylight), but it still feels a bit strange, even when she finds interesting shots and visual motifs (one example: an attic filled with the pieces of female mannequin parts feels like a potent visual metaphor).

Another slight weakness: Kolovratnik is adequate in the main role, but not quite commanding or interesting enough to really carry a movie. His weary eyes have the necessary crinkles, but his performance doesn't have the gravity to match. The role feels like it would probably benefit from someone just a little older; Kolvratnik still looks a bit too young to be as jaded as Zsigmond is supposed to be. Tenki is much better as his frame, picking at the romantic threads in their relationship with a certain desperation. Thanks to her, the scenes between Zsigmond and Krisztina are among the film's most compelling scenes, creating a note of romantic longing that actually works better than the film's larger genre trappings.

The Blu-ray
Budapest Noir arrives on Blu-ray with adequate cover artwork that feels a bit less like a design and more like a handful of genre signifiers. A man in a 1950s hat and jacket looks at a body in a nearly black-and-white backdrop, with the title separating him and the body. Inside the letters, the characters are seen in monochrome red. The back cover is a little less slick, with an aesthetic that looks more in line with the film's low-budget roots. The one-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Menemsha Films, via Kino Lorber, presents Budapest Noir with a 1.85:1 1080p AVC video presentation and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (in the original Hungarian). Unlike many films looking to evoke classic film noir, Budapest Noir sticks to costumes, production design, and the script -- this looks like any other modern, digitally-shot production, with crisp details and clarity, natural-looking colors, and no film grain. Excellent, quality-wise. The sound mixing is similarly basic, with a reasonable amount of depth and directionality to the dialogue and action -- although, for whatever reason, I really had to crank this disc up to get it to a normal-sounding level. English subtitles are also provided, as well as a 2.0 version of the Hungarian audio.

The Extras
Other than some theatrical trailers for An Act of Defiance, Heading Home, The Mover, Redemption (2018), Shoelaces, Those Who Remained, and Winter Hunt (accessible from the main menu), there are no extras.

An original theatrical trailer for Budapest Noir is also included.

Budapest Noir isn't bad, exactly, but it's also not quite good enough to warrant an effort to seek it out. If the film had one more element -- a magnetic lead performance, a more invigorated take on the film's tropes, stronger forward momentum -- the movie might work. As it is: skip it.

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