Bela Tarr is a name to conjure with. On several occasions I've come near to making his cinematic acquaintance, but it's never quite happened. With a film of his finally out on release in London town, the critic makes his way through a sodden, Wintry Brunswick Centre, its Christmas fare suitably bedraggled, with a sense of anticipation.
The Man from London is also a title to conjure with. It turns out that the film is adapted from a Simenon novel. I wonder if school children still learn French with the assistance of Simenon novels. If they don't they're the poorer for it. Moody, dank, black and white - all words which can be applied to the Belgian crime writer's oeuvre and Tarr's adaptation of this novel. I spent quite a long time trying to work out where the film was set: an ancient harbour town with winding streets, presumably within shooting distance of the Channel. Probably, I thought, some small Normandy or Brittany port with a regular cameo on the shipping forecast and which the adventurous motorist can reach after a two day boat crossing from Lyme Regis. When the credits revealed the film was in fact shot in Bastia, on Corsica, it threw everything which had come before mildly off-kilter.
There's plenty of time to ponder the nuances of the film. (Such as how good is Swinton's French accent; and who does that Englishman sound like, again revealed in the credits). The Man from London is as leisurely paced as anyone could hope for, even if it comes in at a Tarrishly concise, Tarr 132 minutes. The opening shot, alone, lasts about 15, as the camera gradually tracks back and forth, following the events that occur when a ship, coming from Britain, docks. Not a great deal ever seems to happen, but what doesn't happen is compensated for by the possibilities of what might happen. This is emphasised by Tarr's roving camera. The film is composed of a succession of luscious camera moves, as a scene is introduced and then gradually explored. The camera is almost constantly on the move, hunting out details, peering behind pillars, suggesting to the viewer that something's lurking round the corner, even when it turns out there's actually nothing there. The times there is something - a suspicious looking man standing in a pool of light; a butcher going about his trade; or a man balancing something on his nose as he dances with another man with a chair - are always good enough to keep you wanting to find out what might or might not be round the corner. For the viewer it's a slow game of suspense, and sometimes hard work, but, as is the way with hard work, it can prove to be remarkably rewarding.
When Maloin, the lead, goes to his cabin, where the man from London has holed up, the camera parks itself outside until he emerges. It stayed there long enough for me to go through the thought processes of firstly thinking: I've probably got time to count the number of planks of wood that make up the door of the cabin; to then actually counting the planks of wood; and then thinking that it didn't seem like very many. I don't think I'd call this sequence suspenseful; I kind of knew by the time I'd got to the second thought process that the camera wasn't going to let me know what was happening inside, I'd just have to wait. It almost felt like a brief time-out - time to look at a wooden door - accept my exclusion, and wait for the film to come back to me. You watch The Man from London on Tarr's terms, not your own, and if you don't like it, you can always leave.
In the end, The Man from London is something of a fable, with the feel of one of Kafka's gentler short stories. It's one of those rare films which I felt would have benefited from being watched with a partner. You can curl up into it, let the time go by, share the experience, come out no more than a little bit the wiser, but having spent time dedicated to the act of spending time together. There's a lovely timelessness to the film, which goes with its understated humour. People tend to describe Tarr as austere or in some way punishingly intellectual, but on this evidence there's more of a warm-hearted and emotional intelligence at work than a heavily cerebral one; albeit one that likes to tell its stories at a leisurely pace, knowing that stories, like fire, can keep us warm through the long Winter nights, and the longer they last, the better.