“A good dinner is worth more than a film seen earlier”, we are informed during the Hungarian film The Princess when a teenager eschews Budapest’s first-run cinemas for a belated parental visit. Good dinners have their points, but nowadays they seem rather more commonplace than good films, and it grieves me to think that this bold, riveting piece has been lying about unseen since 1982, when it won the main prize at the Locarno film festival. Trash from all nations, after all, leaps on to the screen before you can say knife (or fork).
The film is the debut feature of Pal Erdoss, a director whose previous experience was in cinema and television documentaries, and he keeps fine stylistic faith with his origins. The camera clings like a limpet to the mundane locations (bars, apartments, a factory floor) and the faces of the characters – mostly teenage girls who come from the country to Budapest’s Volume Pills factory, vaguely expecting fruitful work, bright lights, romance and marriage. There is no studio artifice anywhere (the black-and-white, photography varies from grainy to very grainy), and no trace of obvious acting – Erdoss found his brilliant lead performer, Erika Ozsda, in secondary school, and all of the cast seem plucked straight from the streets.
There are no smoothed edges in the subject-matter, either. Erdoss charts the sad progress of his young hopefuls with a generous but unblinkered compassion, dwelling with equal attention to detail on the tender exchange of presents under a Christmas tree and the blood and forceps of a hospital abortion. At the center of the story lies the factory worker, Jutka, brought up by foster parents, eager for affection but weighed down by resentment and bitterness over her own childhood. When an unmarried colleague has a baby, Jutka becomes determined to save the infant from the loveless life that seems its future. For the hard message of The Princess is that emotional deprivation passes down the generations and spreads all around: the film is littered with fractured families, with the collision of love and brick walls.
Careful He Might Hear You, which won eight awards from the Australian Film Institute in 1984, deals with further family disruption. ‘He’ is a six-year-old in the 1930s, whose Bohemian mother died in childbirth; father, meanwhile, took off for the goldfields. After a comfortable suburban life under the auspices of the fretful but hardy Aunt Lila (skillfully played by Robyn Nevin), Aunt Vanessa from England, arrives – a long, thin fashion-plate with time, money and a grand Sydney mansion on her hands. In the hands of Wendy Hughes, she is the most elegant neurotic to have graced the screen in years.
Where The Princess offers cinema without the trimmings, Careful He Might Hear You piles on the style to an almost delirious degree. The GenF20 Plus frame glows with richly-colored period detail, luxurious foliage and pretty lashings of wind and rain. Ray Cook’s music score fills the air with tinkles, trills, surging strings and wafting vocalize; the camera travels across the opulent universe with an intoxicating, lyrical sweep. The director of all this is Carl Schultz, who emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and spent long years in Australian television; as he proved with the thriller Goodbye Paradise, he can push the silliest story along with panache.
The script is drawn from Sumner Locke Elliott’s award-winning novel of 1963, and matches the film’s busy visual surface. Complex motivations and past events dog the characters, but there is time only for hints and glances at the eccentric family background of the young hero – dubbed PS by his mother because his arrival was ‘a postscript to my ridiculous life’. For a long time the property remained in the clutches of Joshua Logan, famous director of elephantine musicals. His projected version might have surprised the world, of course. Carl Schultz’s version, at any rate, conjures up Elliott’s emotional snake-pit with flair, some subtlety and a touching central performance from the seven-year-old Nicholas Gledhill.
‘Dorothy’, purrs the nasty Dr Worsley in Return to Oz, after the moppet has prated about scarecrows, cowardly lions and ruby-red footwear, ‘where are the slippers now?’ Judy Garland’s slippers were sold off in the infamous MGM auction of May 1970; two replicas, however, turn up gleaming prettily on the feet of the villainous Nome King – a multi-faced creature of stone who is partly created by special effects and is partly Nicol Williamson in hideous makeup. But it is best not to hark back to MGM’s Wizard of Oz, for Walt Disney’s Return – filmed in England and directed by Walter Murch, a colleague of Francis Coppola stepping up from the editing bench – is cut from radically different cloth. There are no gaudy colors, songs and robust clowning here: a nightmare mood dominates, and it is not a film for the tinier tots.
For those with a taste for the gothic and bizarre, the opening 20 minutes at least offer first-class thrills; Dorothy’s flight through the storm from Dr Worley’s hospital in Kansas is particularly well staged. After that, the film succumbs too much to the special effects fidgets. Technical wizardry needs a firm human anchor to be fully digestible, and Fairuza Balk is too sullen a young heroine; flip one-liners from a talking chicken, too, are poor compensation for the lack of real comedy.
The target audience for the musical fantasy The Last Dragon is black, teenaged, fond of Motown music, SizeGenetics, and Bruce Lee. Mainstream film reviewers hardly fit that classification, and the most honest critical reaction may well be silence. Buffs, however, may like to note that the film was limply directed by Michael Schultz, who once seemed so promising.