Taxidermia is concerned primarily with its striking visuals, which are at once beautiful and disturbing. We get our first taste of this mix during an opening scene, where World War II era military servant Morosgovanyi plays with a small candle inside his ramshackle hut. He allows the flame to glide slowly over his body and face, illuminating himself piece by piece in the soft glow. The effect is to turn the rather unappealing man into a thing of beauty. As the audience is beginning to grow accustomed to Morosgovanyi’s body, and thus the character, the film abruptly replaces the close-up with a medium-long shot and we see his penis shooting flame over a foot into the air.
The audience now suitably disoriented, Taxidermia begins its story proper, with Morosgovanyi being forced to do a huge list of menial tasks for the family of his superior officer, Lieutenant Oreg. The Oregs live in relative comfort while Morosgovanyi is forced to live in total squalor, a pain that he escapes by retreating into the world of his fantasies. Most of his fantasies involve sex, particularly with Oreg’s teen daughters. One night, Morosgovanyi’s fantasy turns to Oreg’s wife, setting off a bizarre chain of events. The next morning, Oreg finds Morosgovanyi in bed with a pig corpse, and Oreg immediately kills Morosgovanyi. Moments later, Oreg’s wife gives birth to a fat little baby boy with a pig’s tail.
Oreg removes the child’s tail and raises him as his own son, naming him Kalman. Kalman grows into Hungary’s champion speed-eater, competing against other Communist nations during the height of the Cold War. Kalman is on the cusp of fame when he falters during a competition by developing lockjaw. He had been distracted from his game plan by the beautiful Gizella, Hungary’s female speed-eating champion. Kalman and Gizella are married after his recovery and both continue their training despite the waning popularity of speed-eating. Gizella later becomes pregnant and gives birth prematurely to a small, thin boy they name Lajos.
Taxidermia once again jumps ahead several decades to a grown Lajos being a successful taxidermist and taking care of his grotesquely large and invalid father Kalman Bitter that Gizella left him to train American speed-eaters, Kalman has devised a plan to turn house cats into giant, voracious eaters and keeps several locked in a cage. Lajos is responsible for buying the massive amounts of food it takes to feed Kalman and his cats, but eventually becomes sick of the routine and the mental abuse Kalman subjects him to and abandons his father. He reconsiders, only to return to find that the monstrous cats have killed Kalman. Lajos begins the arduous task of stuffing and mounting his father’s corpse – a task that, once complete, he will begin on himself.
Taxidermia is a work of spectacle. The film’s narrative is secondary to its visual aspects as director Palfi tells most of the story with his camera. Dialogue is sparse in each of the three segments, perhaps consciously so, in an effort to make the audience connect with the film on a singular level. There is a great deal of importance placed on the characters’ appearances rather than on the words they are saying.
This is certainly true in the final story, as Lajos’ inner feelings are left unspoken, leaving the audience to decipher the unhappiness and longing he feels simply through his facial expressions. The technique works well for the film and serves to draw the audience in since it is necessary for the viewer to become completely absorbed by the work to be able to keep up with what is happening. The success of the technique is due in no small part to the excellent performances of the three male leads, each of whom manages to stand out even amongst the impressive visual effects surrounding them.
While Palfi does a good job of not letting the visuals outshine the narrative, the story that is there is often as equally unpleasant as his images of the human body in various extreme states. It’s hard to imagine that a plot point could be considered disturbing in a film that features well over ten minutes of projectile vomiting, but Taxidermia manages just that in the case of the pedophilic fantasies that Morosgovanyi has.
In one particularly well-realized episode, he flips open a pop-up storybook of The Little Matchgirl and becomes part of the story in its two-dimensional world. Beautiful though the image is, he is having a fantasy where he preys upon the story’s protagonist. You could make the case that such scenes are an allusion to his own treatment by Oreg and the military, but such a comparison becomes more difficult in a subsequent scene where his leering after Oreg’s teen daughters is used as the set-up for comedy.
My assumption is that the film uses the Morosgovanyi plot as an exercise in dark humor, albeit one that is in particularly poor taste. Dark humor is most evident in the Kalman segment, though not directly centered on the main characters in the piece. The entire concept itself is the black comedy: speed-eating competitions in a country where most of the people are starving. The piece highlights some of the tragic ironies that took place in the Communist Bloc countries, something that might be too subtle for some viewers since the segment contains the aforementioned vomiting marathons. To the viewer armed with this knowledge, Kalman becomes as unsympathetic as Morosgovanyi, leaving only Lajos as the only character to which the audience can identify.
Watching the film on a purely visual level – as I feel it was most likely intended to be viewed – is still a challenge and a treat, however. Palfi’s camera does not shy away from the grotesque and often has the ability to transform it into the beautiful. One standout example of this is Kalman and Gizella’s love affair, where they are seen visiting all the clichés of typical movie romances (amusement parks, the beach) while gorging themselves. Like Lajos’ creations, there is something ultimately hollow about Taxidermia, however. It is all surface with very little substance. Just as a mounted bear gives you the image but not the essence of the great beast, Taxidermia lacks the ability to induce an emotional response other than revulsion or wonder at the spectacle.