“Who are we living with? What kind of people?” asks a character in the midst of Bela Tarr’s 1984 feature Autumn Almanac, but this being Bela Tarr the complaint of awkward cohabitation takes on a further metaphysical twist: “Are we even alive?” Hédi (Hédi Temessy) is an elderly middle class dowager, living in a sprawling apartment of crumbling grandeur. Attended by her nurse and confidante Anna (Erika Bodnár) and Anna’s lover the morose Miklós (Miklós Székely B.), Hédi is plagued by her wastrel son János (János Dezsi) with whom she has a toxic aggressive relationship; and wooed by a possible suitor in the former teacher Tibor (Pál Hetényi). As each character jockeys for position, a repressed aggression simmers.
Tarr’s collaborators are beginning to form around him, including composer Mihály Víg who will create such wonderful scores for Tarr’s later films, particularly Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse, but he hasn’t yet happened upon novelist László Krasznahorkai, the chronicler of Satantango and the muse who will become the scenarist throughout the rest of Tarr’s career. With its heavy formalism and humorless melancholy, Autumn Almanac is often in danger of sinking under the weight of its influences: August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman feel like the usual suspects here. However, the committed performances, masterful framing and the beautiful dying waltz of the camerawork are enough to hold the attention and to indicate the masterworks which are yet to come.