Raging Against the Machine
Electra (Mari Töröcsik) is filled with a long-simmering rage and she’s not afraid to let people know it. As she says in Miklós Jancsó‘s 1974 film Electra, My Love, “I was born to disturb men’s peace.”
Who could blame her? The current king of the land, Aegisthus (J¢szsef Madaras), murdered her father/his brother Agamemnon, the rightful king, usurped the throne, and cast out her brother Orestes (György Cserhalmi). That was all 15 years ago and just about everyone’s managed to erase the dirty little details from their collective consciousness, but Electra remembers. As she puts it, “I, Electra, who does not forget. While one person lives who doesn’t forget, no one can forget.”
Still, for Aegisthus and the rest of the population, the true story of Agamemnon’s death is best forgotten. It’s easier to believe the administration-approved version of events: the old king was a fool, burdening his people with a freedom they could not handle and failing to impose much-needed order on the land. It doesn’t matter that “order” is imposed violently and results in a repressive regime (a consistent image throughout the film shows naked commoners being herded around the landscape by the king’s whip-wielding men). Order is all. Says Aegisthus: “A ruler knows that to keep order in his kingdom, roads must be paved with skulls and walls plastered with cries. I don’t like blood, Electra. But it buys order…. People are content if they know what to fear.”
For Electra, this explanation doesn’t cut it. And for years after, she persists, hoping that Orestes will return and avenge their father’s death. Unfortunately, Orestes is nowhere to be seen through much of the film, leaving Electra and Aegisthus to circle around and around each other (in an increasingly wearying manner), holding forth on civic management.
At heart a didactic film (concerned as it is with laying out its competing social visions), Electra drives its point home with an unfortunate degree of regularity: killing the lawful ruler (Agamemnon) is bad, willfully forgetting about it is bad, subjecting the people to tyrannical rule is bad, and (if you’re the “people”) rolling over and accepting the state of affairs is, well, bad. How many different ways can the protagonist say, “I, Electra, will not forget”? Okay, point taken. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is delivered in a sometimes mechanical fashion. Maybe the point is to problematize viewers’ reactions, a kind of Brechtian gesture towards deconstructing the “naturalistic” tendencies of film.
But this pay-off in self-reflexivity, if that’s what it is, just becomes annoying after about 30 minutes. Luckily, Jancsó manages to bring a bit of formal flair to the didactic regime. Considering it’s emotional subject matter (murder, tyranny, revenge, etc.) Electra is pleasantly reserved on the technical front. Jancsó used a meager 12 long-sequences in Electra, a decision that could have been disastrous (as in, turgid, slow, ponderous) if executed poorly. Jancsó camera-work is nimble, however, composed of fluid tracking shots and movements from long-shot to close-up and back again. It has an organic feel to it that’s in stark contrast to the acting style and delivery noted above.
Things get a bit mysterious and symbol-laden in the latter quarter of the film. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that it involves a red helicopter and revolvers, which is a bit strange given that until that point the film was happy enough to unfold in a pre-industrial age landscape of horses, knives and spears. Whatever inspired Jancsó to tack this sequence onto the end, the effect is to explode the film’s narrative trajectory, violently pulling the audience out of what was a gentle downswing towards a logical and traditional cinematic closure.
The sequence is a bit ridiculous and poetic at the same time, replete with a voiceover narrative extolling the virtues of perpetual revolution that would give even the most bureaucratic party apparatchik a bit of a rise. It’s a mix of (apparently) real reverence and over-the-top slapstick that’s contradictory to say the least, and not exactly palatable.
And perhaps that’s Jancsó‘s point. The film was directed and released in Hungary at a time when the Soviet Union, and the Soviet bloc in general, were in an imminent state of collapse. Contradiction was the order of the day - not least of which was the contradiction between the utopian party rhetoric and the realities of a repressive state system. One can imagine today that Electra‘s conclusion held a certain self-reflective relevance for the Hungarian audiences at the time.