Nárcisz és Psyché (Gábor Bódy, 1980)

by Smart

There are several cuts of this film, ranging in length from 140 to 261 minutes. I will be discussing the latter, full length version. It is an adaptation of acclaimed Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres’ 1972 novel Psyché, a work comprising an anthology of poems written from the perspective of a fictional woman. Beginning in the early 1800s, it spans over a century, concluding in the 1920s. The protagonist of the film is Psyché herself, and she remains our personal point of contact throughout this ambitious saga, acting as the one recognizable tying point between scattered events. This sweeping tale all begins with a humble voice-over that retells the convoluted story of her childhood, bringing an early context to a narrative that continuously grows and expands upon itself to an ever increasing degree of obscurity. Shuffled between gypsies and violinists, Psyché developed a unique, rebellious personality, clashing disastrously with the times she was living in. Her character derives from Greek mythology, as does her love interest, Nárcisz, played by Udo Kier. They are both eternally youthful, and their paths frequently intertwine in a tragic romance, as if drawn together by fate across all barriers of time and space. Psyché is a very sexual young being; lust radiates from her, attracting all those that she comes in contact with. For this she is cursed, persistently punished and mistreated. She is her own burden, and it is through this private struggle against hardship that we accompany her into a world which shifts and re-imagines itself over and over, just as often as her life dramatically changes and hurtles her into unfamiliar circumstances. Despite this never ending turbulence, she remains loyal to her individuality and outspokenness. Her eyes shape our exploration of Bódy’s epic creation.

Silence trailed by noise; tranquillity followed by movement. This is the rhythm of all living things, with it eventually finding a balance. Editing is of unparalleled importance, bridging together a narrative of loose causality through remote exposition and surreal imagery; the atmosphere is that of a floating dream. One moment we are among the rich at a lavish party, the next our protagonist is stripped of it all, walking haplessly along a dirt road, spouting vulgarities. Passionate, expressionistic passages constructed through layered images capture a fevered detachment from reality and present grand illustrations of desire. Bódy’s camera is often distant, stagnant, but always finding unique angles from which to come at the action, provoking a fantastic curiosity. It is this curiosity which has landed Psyché in trouble so consistently, as she is always inquisitive and willing to involve herself, even in the face of opposition. The sex scenes, of which there are many, often feel whimsical and heavenly, yet dirty at the same time. Captured in these excursions is an exploration into the nature of pleasure and sickness, health and disease. Rodents surround the act of intercourse, symbolising the transmission of illness. Later it becomes kittens, perhaps softening, even resolving this notion. By this point, however, the characters have already gone through so much torture at the hands of human frailty and the brutality of medicine, which is depicted as a gruesome but necessary part of life. The film’s overall aesthetic is one of great versatility, and relies heavily on a distinctive lighting style which casts much of the frame into darkness, highlighting just the subjects of interest. This creates a theatrical sensation, adding to the larger-than-life mythology which sits permanently atop the film. The story is so infused with energy and franticness; it propels itself with such a massive scope, yet remains driven at heart by the personal issues of Psyché, and her many tribulations with her own femininity.

Packed full of philosophical depth and substance, together the characters and the narrative explore a breadth of thematic territory, which is compulsively stimulating and equally confounding. There is a strong link to poetry to be found in the dialogue, structure and imagery. On the surface this is often harsh, even critical. However, on deeper inspection it blends into pure fantasy, becoming an elevation of imagination through lyrical creativity, leaving behind the earth and all its mortal binds. There is an articulate concern with the segregated aspects of love and sexuality, especially for women, and ponderings on how both purity and impurity find their place in art. Psyché is distinctive in that she is able to traverse the rigid social ladder with ease, experiencing all degrees of the spectrum over many decades. Harnessing this is what allows the film to explore so many aspects of civilisation, across countless locations, while always maintaining for the viewer an intimate voyage. As characters discuss the symbolism of man, woman and nature, it becomes apparent that Bódy has been exploring this already, without the need to pontificate openly on the matter. As we near the end of the narrative, Nárcisz transforms into a far more complex character, achieving an almost divine level of enlightenment. His every word is laced with questioning significance. He has finally attained a position of some power, in many ways inversely mirroring Psyche’s journey. He seeks to immortalise himself through art, believing that to be the antidote to his weakness. As all of this transpires there is, lurking in the background, an electronic system of mysterious design. Its purpose is unclear, even frightening; it seems unrelated to the main storyline, but thought provoking nevertheless. Nárcisz és Psyché is a mesmerizing work, full of striking colourations, glimpses into complex psychology, deep commentary on the essence of living, and a dramatic scale filtered down through one wilful young woman who experiences it all. It is such a pity there is not a better transfer available.