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Cinema Signal:

The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema
The Book

. "Down By Love" (aka, "Szerelemtol sujtva") (accent marks removed by necessity)

This psychological study of obsession turned into madness comes to us from Hungary.

She's a 24 year old single woman who seduced or was seduced by her foster father when she was 13, following the death of her parents. However the pair came together, Eva (brilliant and winsome Patricia Kovacs) has become mentally addicted to 43 year old Tibor (Gabor Mate) to such an extent that she conjures scenes with him in her apartment when he's not there. She berates him for not telling his wife, her former foster mother Klara (Rita Tallos), that he's leaving her for a life with Eva. She prepares lavish meals by candlelight for the non-present lover. She coos coyly, flirts, instructs and succumbs to her images as night turns into day and Monday lapses into Tuesday.

As she verbalizes her fantasies as though she's talking to someone, or in audible memory flashbacks, we learn that Kl ra sent her out of her house and into a convent in an effort to save her marriage when the truth of the illicit affair became known to her. Tibor, for his part, recognizes the illegality of his acts but continues his secret relationship with the comely girl who is his virtual love slave.

He gives her money for partial support which, combined with her earnings as an animation cartoonist, allows her considerable freeedom to live alone in the apartment she inherited from her parents and plenty of time to dwell on her obsessions.

But the devious Tibor, besides stringing her along with false promises, attempts to cover his ass by paying a neighbor to report Eva's every observable move to him, lest her possessive tendencies turn into something that can bring the legal system down on him. Despite the wise pleadings of her foster home sidekick Zsuzsa (Zsuzsa Jaro) to allow other men into her life, and despite the declarations of love by a delivery man of her age, Eva clings to her passion for Tibor and fills her every moment with him, real and conjured. When she tries to bring the lingering situation to a head by confronting Klara, she raises a turmoil.

Returning home from an aborted visit, she listens to two conflicting phone calls on her answering machine. In the first, Klara puts Eva in her place by boasting how she and Tibor are still in love and leaving soon for Spain, while in the next message Tibor makes a date to come over as though nothing has changed. Eva laughs, then plots her moves. She invites both over at the same time for a final showdown, one which will become tragic in its finality.

The art of this is in the challenges director Tamas Sas set himself (perhaps with a nod to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion") and in a world class performance by Patricia Kovacs that vividly meets the tight framework of his vision. Our eyes never leave this girl or the images of her psychosis. The camera grips her in its focus for every frame while other character are seen in soft definition or through mottled glass on the peripheries of the composition. And, while this total absorption with a single character and her fixation might suggest intensity overkill, Sas, his exceptional cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi, and Kovacs herself so vary the visual and modal contexts of the drama that fascination remains constant.

Light and makeup turn her into a spectrum of changeability. Here she's semi silhouetted by the window light on a drab day, there her chameleon face is fully lit by the work table. In fact, I found Kovacs an enticing Lolita figure as she bops around her apartment chasing her visions and memories, exposing a disturbed mental landscape. Her range of expression and sensual appeal feed a demanding performance that should be her ticket to wide recognition and considerable success on American and international film circuits. For my money, this Budapestian newcomer is an international star in the making. Discovery by an American director is all it will take to get that ball rolling.

The visual detail of the noirish atmosphere is at the highest possible level of film resolution. While some might consider the story telling technique a bit gimmicky, the devotion to it and its elegant realization elevates it to cinematic artistry. Don't get it confused with "Down With Love," Renee Zellwegger's starrer coming up in May, or Jim Jarmusch's 1986 "Down by Law." is an art house film whose future fans should be crying for its widest possible circulation.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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