I first saw Taxidermia nearly a decade ago during its all-too-brief theatrical run, and it’s always been in the back of my mind – frankly, it’s not an easy film to shake. A Gilliam-esque comedy full of Jodorowsky symbolic musings, unsimulated sex, and the most vomit seen outside of Team America: World Police – but for a worthy cause. Its surrealist leanings are bent towards telling the history of Hungary from the Second World War on to the present: its sober message is of a once fertile land perverted by economy, affected by lies, and fallen into irreparable decay. Ultimately, Hungary has become sterile, both in the present and the future tenses. It has embalmed itself – into a kind of waking death.
The film takes the form of a narrative triptych – the first portion begins around the War, in a barren, fog-filled land. We are introduced first to the young soldier Morosgoványi in the dark, with flames coming out of his erect penis. (Immediately, we know it will be that kind of film.) We soon learn he is under the thumb of his superior officer, a stern man with a wife and a temper. To retreat from this living hell, he uses his imagination – he dreams he’s sleeping with the lieutenant’s wife, but he wakes up having made it with the corpse of a pig (both fantasy (?) and reality (?) are shown in unsimulated fashion). The lieutenant shoots him for the grotesquerie of it all. The lieutenant’s son is born with a pig’s tail. This is cut off in hideous detail.
The pig-son, Kálmán, in the second section of the film, becomes a master eater. It has become a sport of national pride – our character Kálmán comes in second in a national contest – he professes his love for his sweetheart Aczél during a post-gorge vomit session. He is sweet on the female champion, and together, after a period of wooing and a short subplot of Kálmán’s getting lockjaw during a speed-eating bout with a Soviet champion, they have a son, Balatony.
Balatony is introduced as a bird defecates on the screen – he is a taxidermist by trade. Balatony is so gangly he’s almost vampiric. His father, the once-great Kálmán, has become an incomprehensibly fat, bloated version of himself – like the fat immortal in Blade, muttering to himself about eating and vomiting technique to his cats and the television. The reconstruction period of Kálmán, the time of plenty, has eaten everything and receded into video and entertainment, leaving nothing for the generation of Balatony, who is uniquely consumed with the idea of death. Kálmán looks down on his son for being skinny – after all, he had a vomiting technique to his name! – while Balatony has done nothing… Eventually, his gluttonous father’s stomach explodes. I’m pretty sure he eats a cat. Now left alone, Balatony accomplishes his life’s work: embalming himself alive, with the help of an apparatus he built. This is an unbearably long, 10-minute sequence of Balatony cutting open his stomach, removing his bowels, and filling himself with chemicals – before, at the very moment of death, his machine chops his head off. (Try seeing this in a theater, where everything is blown up 100 times large.) As the film ends, a museum audience looks blithely upon Balatony’s creation in awe – a taxidermied corpse of his own body, before the camera retreats through his navel.
For which to say the film is working on a different sort of operating table. It is a horror film, sure, if not for its extended periods of gore and general repulsiveness. But it is beautiful in its disgust – framed elegantly, shot acutely (it was entered into the 2006 Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival). But it is easy to see why it has never achieved a DVD distribution deal in America. Taxidermia is superbly unrelenting in its distorted visual correspondences on the social and political horrors it addresses. I would need a PhD in Hungarian post-war history to understand it to its fullest – but that doesn’t necessarily mean I need it. One is able to grasp its themes without being spoonfed, because it is all-too visceral at times.
Taxidermia is particularly transcendent in its use of visual analogy – an emblematic cinema tool of Griffith, Eisenstein and Kubrick – to get its philosophical and political points across, with the juxtaposition of images instead of words. The result is a unique magical realism that marries the true-to-life situations, and the fantasy it presents as this truth – of a kind with Bunuel and Pasolini. It may also be a perfect film, in so far as its images and themes match each other in repulsive harmony. Taxidermia is ripe for critical appreciation and rediscovery – at least, among the certain kind of crowd wiling to risk its sordid rewards.
Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!