Comprehending the Incomprehensible
The Facets DVD release of the 1982 Forbidden Relations offers a needed alternative to the contemporary movie miasma. Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács’ Forbidden Relations stands out, not because of its brother-sister incest romance, but because it offers the decidedly un-hip, yet genuine, pleasures of empathy and aesthetics.
Indeed, Forbidden Relations reminds us that empathy and aesthetics can be synonymous. It’s a shock to experience the delicate, non-exploitative handling of a weighty, romantic relationship between a brother and sister. Kézdi-Kovács anticipates viewers’ curiosity, but expects them to expand that curiosity into compassion.
In the process of telling this true story, Kézdi-Kovács learned the imaginative development (from curiosity to compassion) that he demands of his audience. With humility and beauty, the film specifies the rural existence and philosophical predispositions of its characters, detailing the social mechanisms surrounding and responding to the brother and sister’s transgression.
Such clarity results in emotionally complex images, as when brother and sister make love for the first time. The camera zooms in, tightening the frame from horizontal full-body shot to a close-up of their faces, the contours of their flesh sensuously highlighted by cinematographer Janos Kende. The brother, Gyorgy (Joe Horváth), begins to cry while his sister and lover, Juli (Lili Monori), comforts him. Gyorgy, whose ex-wives and shady business dealings have damaged his pride, and Juli, whose husband committed suicide, are desperate for connection. Their lovemaking shows their attempt to achieve it, while obviously challenging social norms.
Dramatizing that oppressive economic, political, and sexual ideologies perpetuate spiritual ache, the film offers the audience the understanding that the couple desires. Juli says of her husband’s suicide: “I just don’t understand why he did it.” The suicide opens the film. After seeing his body, Juli runs into a field, dividing a gaggle of geese. The image—Monori’s body language, the movement of the geese, the low horizon—establishes Juli’s confusion and love as motivation for her decisions later in the film. And the audience begins to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Kézdi-Kovács does not limit this understanding to the two main characters, but also extends his sympathy to Juli and Gyorgy’s mother, the people in the village, even the officials who hound the couple. When Juli and Gyorgy steal away under a plastic canopy during a rainstorm, the shot frames the wood post that they lean against in the foreground, showing the flies landing on the post as clearly as the performers. Juli and Gyorgy’ “unnatural” and “immoral” relationship appears on screen in a manner that is as non-judgmental as this image of the flies.
In one scene, Gyorgy has been granted a leave from prison (he’s sentenced for embezzlement and incest) to visit their newborn son. He skinny-dips in the river after making love to Juli. “You’ve got what you wanted?” he asks her, as he gives her a kiss. Here it appears that their attempts to express themselves, to share an experience, are as wondrous and inexplicable as the sunlight reflecting on the water, the elaborate formations of the trees, the color of the soil.
Such moments create a kind of philosophical structure, underlined by several specific references. At one point, the spectator overhears a speech, on television, concerning differences between Hegel and Marx’s dialectics and “bourgeois” philosophies, in particular, in their understandings of time. Juli and Gyorgy do not pay attention to the television, but make love instead. The significance of this juxtaposition is itself dialectical: abstract theory (thesis) and concrete experience (antithesis).
And yet, the narrative of Forbidden Relations is not designed to make political points. Instead, it’s made up of emotional and visual highlights. The characters’ lives are subject to ideological imperatives that they don’t understand. Kézdi-Kovács dissolves philosophy and emotion during one particular post-coital scene, as Juli and Gyorgy share secrets. She says that she burned her husband’s clothes because “my nose was filled with the smell of him.” Gyorgy reveals that one of his ex-wives made him pay her to have sex. Juli recalls her nightmare of a washing machine overflowing, as she screamed at Gyorgy to help her clean up the mess. Sensory recall, perverted domestic economics, and the imaginative toll of the daily grind are never divorced from their emotional effects. These personal recollections reveal how ideology enters individual subconscious. That process is the tie that binds us all.