A powerful, provocative film (or, really, all "art," for that matter) is not simply a finite parade of ideas put on display without much regard for the actual human on the other end. Rather, the best auteurs are fully aware of the entire experience, pointedly attempting to tug at the psyches of each viewer. Good films challenge our ingrained notions, the things we take for granted, the things that form within us without us even really knowing it or understanding it, e.g., our notions on family or what it means to be inherently "good.”
To be sure, there are plenty of human beings who have and continue to regularly practice critical thinking, but for those of us who do not always have the luxuries of time and space to do so, to take the time to try and understand who we are in relation to the rest of the world, we have art to push us, to remind us we have these amazing, ever-changing masses of matter inside our skulls.
A good film can do that; a good film can test us and push us towards rethinking why we believe what we believe.
Taxidermia is one of those films. It sticks with you, and not simply because of the often grotesque and haunting imagery the film showcases like a gaggle of grown, morbidly obese men wolfing down blocks of congealed horse sausage, or a man pleasuring himself atop a slaughtered pig or a father, upon seeing his newborn baby for the first time and noticing that the child has a tail, lops it off with a cleaver. These are brutal images, but ultimately not the reason I continued to think about the movie several days after the first screening.
The main notion Taxidermia challenges is our notions on the human body. That is, our notions on creation, maintenance and death coupled with preservation. The film has three main pieces, all told from the point of view of a male member of the Kalman clan. We begin at a underutilized Hungarian World War II outpost, where lieutenant Oreg Balatony Kalman and his family live alongside Kalman’s orderly and only charge, Morosgovanyi, a slow-witted, woefully undersexed man who masturbates (with the flame of a candle) to fantasized images of the young daughters of Kalman. Kalman’s son, Balatony, is born which takes us into the film’s next movement, a beautifully understated stretch following a now-grown Balatony through his rocky competitive eating career. Balatony is a highly tragic character, almost always approaching the precipice of ultimate victory but choking (oh, ha, ha, Goldman!) at the last second. He marries another competitive eater, Aczel Gizi and the pair produce a child that goes by Lajoska. This, of course, takes into the film’s final piece, centered around Lajoska, now grown, and his quiet career as a taxidermist and caretaker of his bloated father and cats, somewhere in a small Hungarian city.
What makes the film so beautiful and moving is the questions director Gyorgi Palfi seems to be asking in each of the three movements. In the first, we have the idea of procreation, delivered via uncomfortable masturbation scenes that move between fantasy and reality, blurring the line enough that we don’t quite know who the ultimate father of Balatony might be: Kalman or Morosgovanyi. The child, as mentioned previously, is born with the tail of a pig (a hint, it would seem, that Morosgovanyi is the biological dad), and upon seeing this Balatony lops it off, without hesitation. Here, Palfi seems to be asking: what does it mean to create life? Once we’ve created it, is it our right to somehow shape this life into the being we imagined it might be? We see this often in child-rearing: a controlling parent, hell-bent on micro-managing their child’s personality, forces the kid into roles she may not want to partake of, all in the name of creating a so-called “perfect” being.
Next, in the competitive eating sequence, Palfi is delving into questions of self-maintenance. What does it mean to take care of oneself? Should we forgo health and safety if it means ultimate fame and success? And, truly, how is competitive eating all that different from the ways in which we gorge ourselves at restaurants, clamoring over bacon-wrapped-everything, not stopping until the plate is licked clean?
Finally, Palfi explores preservation of self and preservation of the dead. A man, a doctor, enters Lajoska’s taxidermy shop with a small brown bag. The bag’s contents? An unborn child, or perhaps a stillborn; it’s not completely clear. He slyly (and creepily, I might add) requests that the Lajoska work his magic on the child to which Lajoska begrudgingly complies. And, as we’ve come to expect at this point in the film, Palfi does not shy away from extreme closeups of Lajoska performing his duties on the small, delicate thing. Truly, it’s a hideous stretch of film to watch, but after thinking about it for awhile, it almost feels as if Palfi is asking: what does it mean to honor the dead? How is taxidermy any less grotesque than the sometimes perverse manner in which we currently remember the fallen? We pump our late beloveds full of formaldehyde and display their bloated bodies in a crowded room so that we may kneel in front of them once more. We shove them into a box and put them in the earth, marking them with large stones, so that we may always have them with us. The sentiment seems right, but the acts seem perverse. I don’t mean to imply that we ought to just get over death already, but Palfi truly made me re-think the rituals surrounding death and how what is often considered holy is actually bizarre and perhaps counterproductive. For example, the image of my grandmother in her casket, a rubbery face caked with powders she rarely wore, is forever burned into my mind’s eye. Though I miss her dearly, and think of her often, how sweet and giving and selfless she was, I cannot shake that image and suspect I never will. And it is the rituals surrounding death that brought this about, not death itself.
There are countless ways to read a film like this, and I suspect that’s what Palfi is after here. That he got my mind to move so quickly, to move me towards re-considering the ways I think about life and death is a true testament to the patience and care that went into making Taxidermia.