Vol 0, No 28
6 April 1999
Loving Outside the
Boundaries (Part II)
Marta Meszaros's A szerencse lanyai
To read Loving Outside the Boundaries Part I
Marta Meszaros was one of the best-known names at this year's Hungarian Film Week. With forty years of film-making experience behind her, and some of the classics of modern Hungarian cinema to her name, her new film A szerencse lanyai (Daughters of Luck, 1998) was high on most people's must-see list.
Meszaros's interests can easily be seen by reviewing the titles of her previous works: Orokbefogadas (Adoption, 1975) Kilenc honap (Nine Months, 1976) Naplo gyermekeimnek (Diary for my Children, 1982) and Magzat (Foetus, 1993). Their titles, not to mention their substance, all bear testament to the power of the bond between mother and child. Much of this is due to her own traumatic early years (which she fictionalised in her trilogy of Naplo... or Diary... films) when her mother died and her father vanished into a Soviet concentration camp.
The Naplo... films reflected Meszaros's obsession with her lost parents and fractured family ties in personal ways. The two central father figures to Meszaros's alter-ego in the films were both played by the same actor, Jan Nowicki, who had also starred in several of her previous films. After Meszaros's marriage to Miklos Jancso broke up, Nowicki, the father-figure actor, became her partner. Nowicki also stars in A szerencse lanyai carrying on his paternal role in the guise of the mysterious tycoon and pimp Pan Robert (literally translated as Mr Robert) who has lost his own daughter and is looking for a replacement. However, to reveal this is to jump to the end of the film. Let us go back to the beginning.
Starting out documentary
Natasha is an English teacher in a Russian school. She is 35, stunningly attractive and happily married. However, all is not happiness in the family, for there is scarcely any food for the table. Ever jealous of her gaudily clad friend Vera, who seems to always make enough money - somehow - from her trips to Poland, Natasha decides to pack in her job and take her equally good-looking sixteen-year-old daughter, Masha, to make a fortune in Warsaw. The plan is to buy clothes cheaply in Russia and sell them for more over the border, which is how the tartily-dressed Vera gets all her money. Or so she says. At this point, the remainder of the plot should be so painfully obvious that I hardly need spell it out.
What is interesting though is how much Meszaros' style has changed over the years. In the sixties, she made documentaries and, although in 1968 she switched to feature films, she always maintained and interest in portraying a fictionalised version of reality in a documentary manner. The Naplo... films, for instance, are extraordinarily careful in their portrayal of historical reality. Contemporary newsreel footage is used in the films but in such a careful way that it seems part of the action. Even though Meszaros chose to film a fictionalised account of her own life, she maintains a kind of neutrality. The film manages to elicit sympathy for its central character, but at the same time makes clear her faults and failings as a human being without intruding into the realm of pathos. Indeed, the character is something of a likeable selfish brat.
A szerencse lanyai certainly starts off firmly rooted in the documentary tradition, and the farewell party for Natasha is a careful piece of documentary observation. The bulk of the film, however, is a sexual fantasy. Meszaros soon sweeps aside the degradation and humiliation that comes with Natasha's inevitable decline into prostitution and portrays the "work" as empowering and even liberating. Natasha soon becomes internationally famous and clients come from all over the world for her services. The camera hovers lecherously over her naked body and savours her sensuality, lit by a warm orange glow.
Prositution: Women triumphing over men?
Her clients are somewhat different: emotionally or even physically crippled, they are empty broken men who cower in her presence and even roll up into a tight ball after sleeping with her to protect their fragile souls from the outside world. Natasha, though, is increasingly confident and starts to feel at home with the luxury and wealth her fame has bought her. When her daughter asks her if she enjoys the power she has over men she finds she cannot deny it.
Despite this idyllic portrait of her profession, the film does not end happily for Natasha, though. Her one worry is that Masha will be forced into prostitution like she was. Pan Robert, her pimp, insists that this will not happen and indeed his interests in Masha are on a far different level. Masha decides she has a new father in her life and runs off with Pan Robert. Natasha is freed from prostitution and the generous Pan Robert gives her more than enough money to return to her husband in Russia and live a "normal" life.
A szerencse lanyai is an intriguing work and says much about the inner-workings of its once-great director. Sadly, the film considered on its own aesthetic merits is worthless and, worse still, is insulting to the Russian women who actually do sell themselves abroad for bread to put on the family table.
Andrew J Horton, 6 April 1999 (republished 1 November 1999)
More on Meszaros
Click here for an interview with Meszaros by Andrew Princz made during the filming of Kisvilma - Az utolso naplo (Little Vilma - The Last Diary)Click here for an interview in Hungarian in the Slovak-based Hungarian magazine Uj Szo
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