by Boyd van Hoeij
The renaissance of new Hungarian cinema, which started some years ago with titles such as Szép Napok (Pleasant Days), Hukkle and Kontroll, keeps gaining ground with no less than three titles this year in Cannes (including Taxidermia and the country’s 2006 Foreign Language Oscar submission Féher tenyér/White Palms), a strong presence of young filmmakers in Karlovy Vary and the first feature film of director Gyula Nemes, Egytleneim (My One and Onlies), as part of the ambitious Critics’ Week programme in Venice. The editor of european-films.net, Boyd van Hoeij, met with the director and his star Krisztián Kovács -- who plays the über-sexy yet boyish seducer who is the protagonist of Egytleneim -- on the terrace of the Excelsior Hotel in Venice, overlooking a calm Adriatic Sea that seemed unfazed by the fact that one of the busiest and most important film festivals in the world was happening just two hundred metres away.
Egyetleneim tells the simultaneous stories of a womaniser who seems to think that a girl (or two, or three) a day can keep the doctor away and of the difficult long-term relationship the boy tries to live with an equally nameless girl (played by Orsolya Tóth, who won the Best Actress Award at the Hungarian Film Week for this film and Mundruczó’s Johanna). The director explained that the film has to be seen as partially autobiographic: “Naturally I have to make a film about picking up girls, because I am part of a ‘lost’ generation; I could make a film about war or revolution but no such events happened in my life and I did not grow up in a big family, so the only thing left was shooting this crazy world of parties and girls. A world in which there is not a single day in which you do a normal thing, so basically, a film about nothing. And I think I was able to shoot everything about nothing”.
Ironically, the idea of the film came to Gyula when he spent a night alone: “On a sad, rainy night in Budapest I was at a cinema because I had to write about a short film that was shown there. Everybody in the audience was laughing but I was crying because I did not have a girl, but then I became happy when I realised that this could be the topic of my first film. I then had many adventures and ups and downs, and was happy every time I realised I had one more scene for my film”.
The role of the womanising protagonist is played to perfection by hot young actor Krisztián Kovács, whose working relationship with the director on Egyetleneim must have been interesting to say the least. The actor explains: “Because it was an autobiographical film for Gyula, he made my work impossible! When I got over it, however, I just looked at him and how he lived. The strangest thing was that every time Gyula liked a take, I thought it was the worst ever, a take about which I felt really very bad”. The director adds: “I know a lot of young Hungarian actors and I thought Krisztián could be good, but I was a bit hesitant about him. I decided that I wanted to do a lot of rehearsals with him, because he always said: "I can't do it", and then he did it”.
That Kovács was obviously the right choice was confirmed when at the first screenings of the film some people in the audience (no doubt also inspired by the off-the-cuff, cinéma verité-inspired shooting style of cinematographer Balázs Dobóczy) thought that the film was a documentary about Krisztián rather than a fiction film. Of his star’s performance, the director says: “It is like with a sound engineer on a film: you only notice that he worked on the film if the sound is bad, otherwise you don't notice him. With Krisztián it is the same, but it took a lot of hard work from us both, and a lot of killing each other” [laughs].
Krisztián, implying with his own laughter that there is probably some truth in this statement, adds: “Gyula often got me into impossible situations, but afterwards I realised they were very good tasks for me. For example when we interviewed the girls, that made me feel like shit! During the three years we worked on the project, I set up my own family and had a baby, so for me making the film and being this character, I had to go back ten years, to play a variation on Gyula, who is still retarded and single and looking around [for a girl]”. The actor looks over to the director -- who is translating the actor’s Hungarian into English for the benefit of the interviewer, whose Hungarian is not what it used to be -- to check if the director is indeed translating what he saying, before, apparently satisfied, he continues: “I never picked up as many girls as Gyula, not 24 hours a day like him, but I have some experience. The film is very exhibitionistic, and I had to make my characters like that, and afterwards girls came to me and confirmed that he was true to life!”
The director explains that the film was well-received by the ticket-buying audience in Hungary, where it premiered in the same week as its Venice presentation. On the reactions of a foreign audience to the film, Nemes says: “It is a strange thing for me to see foreigners that like the film very much, also because the music and the atmosphere it is not even Hungarian but very much Budapest. But there are things that help: I hate dialogues and in a way I have lived an international life. I was living in another country [when I started working on the film: the Czech Republic] and I am originally from the countryside, so I am looking at Budapest, at the big city, with foreign eyes”.
One thing that might have helped its good international reception according to the duo is the fact that the local and the international are becoming ever more mixed up: “Yesterday,” says the director, “ We were in a party and it was really similar to what we show in the film: the same situations, the same drinks, the same music. I thought that now that I can travel to the West because I made a film, I would enter into a different world, but no -- because Hungary has become the same as the Western world. When I grew up I didn't see any Western countries, and now that I can travel, there are no Eastern countries anymore. The film is also about this problem: if you live a local life, it is not really a local life. Of course there is a solution, also in the film, where the people stick to the peninsula where I lived while working on the film. You can escape from this world and find love, but the hero is not ready for that moment in life when you find something so he loses it -- maybe towards the end he can understand that he can find something and keep it. Maybe a little bit Zen-buddhistic, but...”
Nemes explains that the film has been in the making for several years, but that this long gestation period did not mean there was no room for accidents, luck and improvisation on the set: “I reflected ten years on the film, but when we were shooting, there was a lot of improvisation. For example, there is the scene where each girl has a book, which was an idea that came to me just before we shot it. I thought about the film for years but that never occurred to me until we filmed it! With the nine minutes long tracking shot at the end, we were very lucky as well. We knew there was the last metro, and we had to do something. If you are so brave that you are stupid, you could be lucky. Normally a shot like this is immensely complicated and needs a lot of preparation, but we just did it. The people who were there were so disciplined: they never looked at the camera when we were in the streets. Why populate the streets with actors? Just having the main character is enough. Of course you do need a very good cameraman [in this case Balázs Dobóczy]”.
On the spontaneous shooting style of Egyetleneim -- which gives the film much of its zest -- Krisztián says: “It was very good that my first real work on a feature film was a project where we could shoot everything just once. It doubt there will be other films where there won't be any make-up or mistakes! I like that kind of filming, though, but unfortunately, there are not a lot of films that are made like that”. He then adds: “The most important thing was that I trusted the director. I wanted to kick him in the ass as a person, but as a director I trusted him. I needed this to create this character. It is this trust that makes it possible for the audience to think that there are no actors in the film”.
Seen their atypical working relationship, would they consider working together again? The handsome actor answers with a sly smile: “We are not talking about this in the direct future, but if we both live until our 70s, then we should make the second part of Egyetleneim” [laughs]. The director, suddenly more serious, adds: “Of course I will write my scripts and know when there is a part that will fit Krisztián. But I don't know when this will be. Maybe it won't happen”.
What will likely happen is the director’s next project called Zero, which recently received more funding because of Nemes’ selection for the Critics’ Week. He describes the project as an anarchistic comedy in which a criminal, a terrorist wants to change something ridiculous in society. According to the director the new film will be “Funny, tragic and inviting reflection”, and will be very different from Egyetleneim: “It will be in black and white and cinemascope. It will be a very graphic film, and I can already see the lines, the contours”.