The Girl

 

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A welcome opportunity to see the films of Márta Mészáros begins with her debut feature.

 
Girl, The  

Kati Kovács

 

The timing really could not be better. This month sees the start of a special tribute on Mubi to the Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros who this year is due to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. But what makes it timely goes far beyond that. We live in an era when there is a real interest in the contribution made to the cinema by women and Mészáros is both notable in that context and a figure whose work is too little known in Britain. Having started out by making a prodigious number of short documentaries, she took an entirely new direction in 1968 and gave us The Girl, a work that was the first Hungarian feature film to be made by a woman. At the Valladolid International Film Festival it won the Special Jury Prize and Mészáros would go on to win awards at many other festivals including Berlin, Cannes, San Sebastian and Venice. Her most acclaimed work, 1984's Diary for My Children (the first film in a trilogy), was taken up for distribution in Britain but, despite the praise it received, it did less well at the box office than might have been expected. That may explain why her films are almost unknown here regardless of the fact that as recently as 2017 her Aurora Borealis won the Audience Award as Best Foreign Language film in Chicago. Throughout her career her films have been notable for the prominence given to well-crafted roles for women (Mészáros usually provides her own screenplays) so to give British audiences a detailed look at her work in this way is long overdue.

 

Apt as it is for the season to start at the beginning, it seemed quite possible that The Girl would be relatively minor, a work of promise rather than anything special. But now that I have seen it I have to declare that the first hour or so is something of a masterpiece. I find the remaining twenty minutes less satisfying but still believe that The Girl is a truly remarkable feature debut. Furthermore, it is as striking today as it ever was. It was filmed in black and white (quite brilliantly so) but, if that relates it to its period, the feminine perspective that it offers feel totally undated. Mészáros often worked with great actresses favouring young players whose faces had an expressiveness that rooted their characters in reality. That aspect is already in place in The Girl which finds Kati Kovács in the title role bringing an inner intensity to the film that is crucial to its success: her eyes are her striking feature, but no less important is the sense that there is nothing of the actress about her. The dissatisfied 24-year-old at the centre of this piece feels authentic through and through.

 

The Girl opens in Budapest and quickly establishes the titular character and her situation. Her name is Erzsi and she has been brought up in an orphanage which, while not uncaring, has left her aware of having lacked a normal home life. She now works in a factory. Having traced her mother to the village of Várkút, she takes a train to spend a weekend there but finds on arrival that her mother had been having second thoughts about agreeing to meet her. This is understandable given that the mother (Teri Horváth), now a married woman with other children, had never revealed the birth of an illegitimate daughter and she now insists on introducing her to the family as her niece.
If these early scenes are commendably fast-moving, the portrait of village life that follows is in contrast quietly atmospheric and comes across as no less authentic than the characters. The visitor may have arrived with strong notions about a confrontation or with the hope of shaping a bond but no big drama ensues. Instead we identify with her hesitations and doubts, the whole thing utterly compelling due to the skills of all concerned. They include the editor Zoltán Farkas and the accomplishments of Mészáros herself extend to her astute use of sounds, natural ones contributing as much here as the carefully controlled use of music.

 

The last third of The Girl sees Erzsi return to Budapest and the flow of the earlier scenes is replaced by a series of episodes that seem rather disjointed. They include a sexual encounter entered into by Erzsi on her own terms and here in a film that otherwise seems so real there is a wholly contrived touch when a song heard on a gramophone record chimes with the girl's feelings and is thus set up to comment on them. A youth and a much older man also have parts to play in these later scenes, the details of which should not be disclosed in advance. Ultimately, a theme about making your own way and looking ahead in preference to being too much concerned with the past does emerge. Indeed, the film's Hungarian title translates as The Day Is Gone. Weaker though this final section is, it gets by and the first two-thirds is so striking that the film should on no account be missed. As this season from Mubi goes on over the coming months, it should confirm the standing of Márta Mészáros and, indeed, even if The Girl is ultimately less than perfect, this feature is sufficient on its own to establish her importance. On top of which the performance by Kati Kovács is a revelation in its own right.

 

Original  title: Eltávozott nap.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kati Kovács, Teri Horváth, Jácint Juhász, Ádám Szirtes, Gábor Agardi, Zsuzsa Pálos, András Kozák, Gábor Harsányi.

 

Dir Márta Mészáros, Pro István Nemeskürty, Screenplay Márta Mészáros, Ph Tamás Somló, Pro Des Támas Banovich, Ed Zoltán Farkas, Music Levente Szörényi, Costumes Piroska Kalória.

 

Hungaro Film/Mafilm Studio 4-Mubi.
80 mins. Hungary. 1968. Rel: 22 March 2021. Available on Mubi. No Cert.