Hungarian master Miklós Jancsó described his trademark filmmaking style as ‘calligraphic’, asserting that he wrote the film with his camera as a pen. His style was one of reel-length takes that ebb and flow; meticulous choreography that incorporated close-ups and long-shots into single, unbroken sequences often dominated by balletic movement and song as much as traditional narrative. This is certainly the case for his radical mythology adaptation, Electra, My Love, which transforms the familiar Greek story into an incredible musical pageant, exploring tyrannical governance and the empowerment of revolution during Soviet control of his homeland and strict state censorship.
Oblique allegory was the weapon of choice for many filmmakers and artists operating in Communist-controlled states across Europe during the 20th century – hoping both for their work to be sanctioned and to comment on society. It was Hungarian playwright László Gyurkó who decided to co-opt the tale of Electra (told by legends like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in antiquity) to address contemporary political concerns, and it is his play that provides the starting point for Jancsó. It is only a starting point, though, as the filmmaker filters the text through his unique style to craft a mannered and operatic call to arms. It is striking that the equivalent of the Greek chorus – a cast of dancing extras that purportedly numbered around 500 – are constantly corralled by a troupe of flagellators like cattle (in their dehumanisation) or sheep (in their simpering compliance).
The man holding the reigns, Aegisthus (Jószef Madaras), has been read as both Stalin and Hungary’s own totalitarian ruler Mátyás Rákosi, and can just as easily be seen as a personification of Soviet oppression having murdered and usurped the benevolent king, Agamemnon, fifteen years past. He mistreats his subjects, deploring his predecessor for filling their heads with confusing notions about freedom. The action takes place on the Puszta (making it timeless but for the relatively modern costumes) in twelve roving shots over seventy minutes as Aegisthus throws an annual feast in commemoration of killing Agamemnon. Meanwhile, the deceased king’s daughter, Electra (a magnetic Mari Töröcsik) bides her time waiting for the return of her brother, Orestes (György Cserhalmi) before enacting her own plan to seize back power.
Despite still being framed as a familial revenge, even this most desperately personal desire becomes an act of public will – what for Electra is revenge, for Jancsó is revolution. The director’s vivid constructions prior to Electra, My Love have been described as ritualistic by some but here he takes that idea to its literal endpoint by entwining the action into the profane festivities. Electra bristles at the reenactment of her father’s murder, and lashes out with a ceremonial knife at the messenger who brings news of her brother’s demise. János Kende’s camera follows them through crowds of nubile virgins, comedic dwarves, falconers and townsfolk dancing in unison. At one point Aegisthus offers the people the chance to criticise in safety only for them respond with sycophancy – an overt critique of supposed freedoms in a state that ultimately curbs them. Later the people cover their ears when Electra does decide to speak the truth.
Metaphorical and metaphysical in a way that would understandably draw comparisons with the mythologically-tinged work of Pasolini, Jancsó’s is in reality a singular voice. Though the film may lose some viewers in the euphoric, symbolic and anachronistic coda featuring a red helicopter, the potency of the message remains intact. This is bold political allegory and spellbinding cinema of the first order.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson