Damnation (1987) has that dark noir vibe with incredibly breath taking cinematography. The story is about a married woman ending an affair with a very gloomy-eyed barfly. And this entire narrative revolves around him confessing his I-can’t-live-without-you saga which somehow convinces her to stay in the lopsided affair. But at one point the woman breaks it off because she wants to focus on her singing career in this very dilapidated town where everyone likes to dance and drink. Then of course the gloomy-eyed barfly convinces the manager of the bar to employee the married woman’s husband to smuggle illegal drugs in to make some money. So that way he’ll take the fall be thrown in jail and the two lovers can live happily ever after. Well, that’s the gist of it anyway. The narrative is messy and doesn’t provide for any resolution because I guess you can say life doesn’t always have a resolution it just is what it is.
What really makes this film work is not in the story line but in the style it’s captured in. The opening of this film is all about the long take where the editing becomes minimal and characters continue to do mundane things that have nothing to do in moving the story forward. Realism is captured throughout the narrative but there is a steep, stigmatizing void to it.
This is Bela Tarr at his best and where his notable style takes root. I think its all about a void most people carry within themselves but continue to live their lives as if aware of it and yet are unaffected by it.
The camera rests on the motion of an empty lift squeaking its way from one place to another, like a sad conveyor belt aimlessly running it’s course. From there, the camera slowly pulls out, focusing on the inside of a window. Keeping steady with the subjective point of view, the camera pans revealing the back of a man’s head. Here it is, the main character in the act of simply gazing out the window within the first five minutes of the film without a single cut. Sure, this has been done a million times before in a million other movies, but Bela Tarr has a gifted finesse to it, making it unbelievably seamless and natural. His eye in detail, timing, contrast, and lighting makes this art film live and breathe by layers and depth.
On the surface, most if not all Bela Tarr films feel depressing, meaningless, and are considered boring because the stories are unappealing and the characters don’t always have exciting action. But on a deeper level, his cinematography points the camera on life itself. Imagine it this way; the universe is massive and as its inhabitants walking the earth, we have no control over what the universe is going to throw at us. Bela Tarr gives us that in Damnation, where his characters are walking about a deep, dark, dreary world, and there’s no substantial significance to it, other than their day to day lives of being who they are as people. I mean if you think about the word “damnation” from a biblical standpoint you are condemned by your own conscience. So, maybe in a way it’s an internal hell but it’s showcased on the outside. The entire story takes place on the outskirts of some town that feels desolate and is in the middle of nowhere, abandoned even. It’s a hell with internal and external components.