From Hungary and the imagination of director György Pálfi, director of the charming but innocuous comedy Hukkle, comes a movie unlike anything you?ve seen before. Truly defining the term ?midnight movie,? Taxidermia is a glorious, imagination-filled assault on bourgeois values, good taste, and restraint in cinema. Get ready to meet the meat.
Three generations of men in a troubled Hungarian family are depicted in three distinct storylines, roughly corresponding to the natural human activities (and excesses) of screwing, eating and dying. The first section takes place around World War II, and tells the story of Vendel, a hare-lipped, simpleton soldier who has been posted to a muddy farmhouse with his lieutenant, who treats him as his virtual slave. To pass the time, Vendel fantasizes about the lieutenant?s two daughters and masturbates fairly constantly (one misadventure with a hole in the barn wall ends with his penis being pecked by a rooster). One night Vendel has sex with the lieutenant?s corpulent wife (in a scene featuring full-on hardcore shots) and, awakening the next morning on a pile of freshly-butchered pig meat, he is shot in the head by the lieutenant.
The offspring of that coupling ? born with a little piggy tail, which is promptly snipped off ? grows up to be Kálmán, a husky fellow who is training to be the top competitive eater in all of Eastern Europe. With production design beautifully evoking early 1960s-era Soviet bloc kitsch, Pálfi conjures a world in which eating contests are set to become an Olympic sport and their massive champions are sex symbols cheered on by crowds of fans ? the screenplay even obsesses over various techniques and creates scientific jargon related to the sport (?Watch out for the cross-swallow!?). Kálmán is losing his drive, however, his gaze having been caught by canning factory worker and female eating champion Gizella, whose look proves that the spirit of John Waters? frequent movie star Divine is alive and well in Hungary. Between bouts of eating and subsequent onscreen vomiting (which appears to be CGI, thankfully), Kálmán romances Gizella while trying to hold off other suitors, as well as those who wish to capture his competitive eating crown.
The third story shifts forward to modern times, as Kálmán?s rail-thin son Lajos, a professional taxidermist, cares for his elderly father, now little more than an immobile blob of flesh who consumes candy bars by the boxful (still in their wrappers) and spends his day reliving his past glory on television while simultaneously training a trio of hideously overgrown housecats to continue his legacy as competitive eaters. Full-frontal nudity, flame-shooting penises, self-mutilation, fetuses encased in Lucite, pig slaughter, animal attacks, and starbursts of semen all figure into the film, which transcends the mundane and vulgar lives of its main characters with a final, cathartic act of self-sacrifice by Lajos that seems to give his depressing family?s life some sort of real meaning.
The best and most transgressive Eastern European filmmakers ? such as Dusan Makavejev and Jan Svankmajer ? have always maintained a fascination with the essential ?meatiness? of being human, and refused to shy away from bodily functions the way that Western European or American filmmakers have done. Earthy sexuality, excrement and various other fluids often find their way into such films, and Taxidermia continues in that proud tradition. Pálfi?s triptych of tales are wall-to-wall parades of the disgusting and embarrassing facets of being human, yet manage to entrance and enlighten as often as they repel. And rather than being pedantic, Pálfi?s lessons on life manage to be alternately hilarious and shocking, sometimes at the same time.
As in Hukkle, he uses some remarkably innovative filmmaking techniques, such as an unbelievable rotating shot in the first episode, in which the camera spins around a carved tub that?s used as a bath, casket, baby bassinet and other things, the camera seemingly moving through the floor as the tub remains stationary. Vendel?s erotic fantasy sequences are also brilliantly realized, from his pecker-on-fire to a funny episode in which he is masturbated by Hans Christian Andersen?s famous Little Match Girl. Filled with minute details of production design, costume and performance, there is so much going on in the film that multiple viewings are probably required to absorb it all.
When the film finally moves into the stark horror of the third story, from which nearly all of the warmth and humor of the previous episodes has been drained, Pálfi has the audience so caught up in what will happen next that the exact details of Lajos?s ultimate work ? a gory assemblage of body parts, guts, blood, viscera, and power tools ? will remain hazy, like a barely-glimpsed nightmare image at the edge of one?s vision. (I?m still asking myself if what I saw onscreen actually happened, and if so, how they managed to do it.) The world of horror encompasses a wide variety of subgenres and individual approaches to that which disturbs us, and Pálfi has managed to create a film that is able to be funny, moving, upsetting and horrifying throughout, a genre-defying exercise in imagination that is hopefully a glimpse of what the future of genre filmmaking holds for us.
Taxidermia is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.