Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) as an auterist adaptation
An idiosyncratic appropriation of Georges Simenon’s same-titled novel

Ioannis Tsirkas

   Even if Béla Tarr disowns his role as auteur -though he insists on the approach of his work as having a continuity-, characteristically using the first person plural when he makes reference to it and cosigning his films from the Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and on with his wife -who mainly involves herself in their editing-, this factor is not going to undermine the content of my essay. Taking into account the thesis of V.F. Perkings (2008, p.71), that as long as a film is coherently shaped and embodies a consistent meaning we can interpret the established relationships in its unity regardless of them as a result of a combined effort and not only by the director himself, I will analyze his ‘personal expression and perspectives’ (Corrigan 2012, p.443) as being the sole ‘intellectual source’ (Sellors 2010, p.117) of the film The Man from London (2007) and not just having the ‘leading role’ (Leitch 2007, p.237) in its creation. More particularly, I will examine the film as an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s same-titled novel L’Homme des Londres in an attempt to analyze the ways by which he used the novel just as a substratum (Tortajada 2004, p.356) producing something accordant with his ‘personal idiosyncracy’ (Staiger 2003, p.33). The fact that an adaptation of a novel in cinema cannot just be a transpositional practice (Boozer 2008, p.1; Sanders 2006, p.18), but inevitably an interpretation too (Carroll 2002, p.1), and thus a potential ‘act of discourse’ (Andrew 1986, p.106) marks one of the main reasons of the ‘markedly different affective and/or intellectual experience’ (McFarlane 1996, p.26) that a reader feels before watching the film and comparing it with the reading of its source book. The Man from London can be considered as a perfect example of an adaptation which appropriates the meaning from a prior text (Andrew 2000, p.29; Catmell and Whelehan 2010, p.58) by following the ‘spirit rather than the letter’ (Sinyard 1968, p.x) of it and developing certain aspects of it (Giddings, Selby and Wensley 1990, p.24) in opposition with some others. By giving prominence to them and analyzing how Simenon’s novel is ‘not only decontextualized, but [also] recontextualized’ (Venuti 2012, p.93) I aim to demonstrate the film as an adaptation which consists, in association with Simenon’s book, according to Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn’s (2012, p.9) words, a ‘derivation that is not derivative’.
   Apart from the Man from London, two of the most prominent films of his later work[1], Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), are also literary adaptations. Tarr has made a significant statement:
‘I don’t care about stories. I never did. Every story is the same. We have no new stories. We're just repeating the same ones. I really don’t think, when you do a movie that you have to think about the story. The film isn’t the story. It’s mostly picture, sound, a lot of emotions. The stories are just covering something’ (Kohn 2012).
His thoughts cannot simply be reflected in practice, but in his work we can discern a constant effort for the reduction of the plot of his films and the focalization on their form, which, being along with his technic inseparable from his poetics (Tomaras 2011), does not overlap their textual context. Jarno Valkola (2009, p.114) underlines that Tarr ‘shows that the visual forms converg[e] with factors of meaning’ creating the images in his films, which, according to Elzbieta Buloswka (2009, p.114) have ‘their own logic of non-linguistic communication, the logic of utterance, enacting a free, indirect, trans-subjective film thinking’. By premising the style against the story, he makes it ‘be sublimated into the style’ as Tony McKibbin (2011) mentions, in an arduously despairing way. In this way, the story becomes just a pretense for Tarr to express his view about the world and its (un)meaningness (Tomaras 2011). Besides, when he felt that he had nothing more to say about this, he declared -and until now he has not changed his mind- that he will never direct any other film.
   So, his decision to direct a film based in this particular Simenon’s book evinces his belief that following the book’s story, he would be helped to share his personal artistic vision. His faith on the fact that cinema constitutes a different language from literature and hence any attempt to adapt a novel to film keeping all its details is practically impossible (Pinter 2002, p.57; Romney 2002, p.71) will not allow him to do anything else. His personal vision appears to have reached its peak at his last five full-length films which are characterized by a common cinematic language and some discernible thematics (Tomaras 2011) which are differentiated from the others and can be considered as belonging to the more cohesive and mature period of his later work. What I will specifically attempt in my essay is to analyse the way they can be detected in The Man form London in comparison with the way they are presented in Simenon’s novel and the occasions when Tarr diversifies himself from it in his film in order not to miss the cohesion of his cinematic art.

The inconsiderableness of the stories
   Nadine Poulain (2007) fairly underlines that in Tarr’s films the stories provide just the structure for the subtle meanings to unfold. This, of course, does not confute the importance of the story in each of his films but highlights the fact that Tarr does not consider them as their crucial factor. Besides, he -oddly enough- states that ‘the film is […] everything but not story’ (Bori 2008, p.161)[2] and tries his of stochastic intentions (Sant 2002, p.15) cinema to function like this, not only regarding the way by which he formalistically narrates a story but in a way so that the one would reflect into the other, giving thus the impression of an indecomposable whole. So, thinking of Tarr’s notion that what happens in a film is of higher importance than the happening itself, we are not impressed by his choice, considering the plot in George Simenon’s novel, to reduce, in Jacques Rancère’s (2013, p.74) words, the story ‘to some essential relationships and figures’. Indeed, his attempted transition from the book to the film, it can be said, has on a certain extent the character of an amalgamation. For example, all the stores that are mentioned in the book as adjacent to Maloin’s (Miroslav Krobot) tower are merged into only one. Further, while in the book a whole police force is being reported apart from their leader, in the film all those characters merge to the face of the old inspector Morrison (István Lénárt). In Tarr’s film, every hero stands as a figure which summarizes attributes from different characters of the book. Keeping its basic plot, he reduces it by simply dissecting its text into ‘figures, sites and situations’ (Bori 2008, p.161) and then premising the more essential from them, not obviously ignoring the others but merging them to the first. So, the appropriation of Simenon’s story and its transition to his own filmic universe is not succeeded through a reconstruction of the novel’s plot since he rather flattens it than adding or eliminating its action. If, as it was mentioned above, the story of Tarr’s films is not the measure of their essence, it would be absurd to try to change the story by reconstructing it in order to be brought to alignment. This is succeeded by not skewing its base as long it is exactly the narrative core of the book that he finds effectual in order to develop cinematographically the ideas that can be found or could be found to him, intrinsic -and not solely relative- ideas with his own ideal core of his poetics.

The circularity of time
   A second feature of Tarr’s films is what Stéphane Bouqouet (1991, p.58) names as the pattern of the circular return in them, the notion that everything returns where it initially was the last time it was seen or faced. This absence of development, more than the proceedings themselves, concerns primarily the inner world of the heroes. What eventually is not accomplished is the substantial change of what is taking place for the heroes concerning their faith in the sense of their presence in the world rather than the proceedings themselves. Tarr signalizes this non accomplishment of the facing of what is accomplished outside of the heroes, into them. His heroes drift into the time without the latter accomplishing anything. In order this to be brought into prominence in The Man from London, he proceeds to a crucial change at the end of the story. In the book, Maloin gets imprisoned when he submits to the police. At the end we find him wondering about his friends’ behavior against him and vice-versa: he himself seems to face them differently. From the symbolic confinement to the observation post that is described as a cage by Simenon[3], the troubles of his life lead him to an unbearable desolation, which hitherto was expressed through his inability to interfere the reality of his daily routine. András Bálint Kovácks (2013, p.141) observes that
‘Simenon’s story has a linear development leading from a miserable existential situation and an alienated psychological state toward moral gratification, which changes considerably Maloin’s life in all respects […]. By contrast, in the film, Maloin’s trajectory is circular’.
Actually, the mishap of the literary Maloin constitutes one of the problems which though are never solved, offer a -supposing vestigial- solution by having him apart from feeling outsider, to be eventually recognized as such by the society. The cinematic Maloin is at the end found at the same existential position. Despite his submission to the inspector, his taken as self-defense action to kill Brown (János Derzsi) does not lead to his being imprisoned. All those that seemed to direct him somewhere, involute him, bringing him to his last position after a ferocious disproval of his hope. This is what he mainly loses without getting anything. This disproval, therefore, functions as an ascertainment that he should not keep any hopes about anything. In this way, Tarr illustrates in the most vivid way his gloomy aspect that all the things return to their initial position and condition without having ever led anywhere.

Slow deterioration
   Even if the decided in advance progress of the events into time signals a circular cause, how is their succession presented by Tarr? In his films life is presented not as a series of proceedings, but as a condition of fatigue, remission, expectance and stillness (Asteris 2008) through the stylistic features of meditation, monotony and slowness (Kovács 2008). All these elements make their appearance in the film: Maloin’s actions throughout it are slow, giving the impression of ennui, exactly as we can imagine him to be in his job. His job is to wait staring monotonously for something to happen around his observation post into which he is encaged. Each day for him is invariably the same. He does not seem to have somebody to get hold of and believe. What characterizes his life is the reiteration of all the things that surround him and of time as well. Tarr can only illustrate this tone in a relatively implicit way whereas Simenon expresses those feelings more explicitly in his novel (Kovács 2013, p.88). What the writer has the potentiality to describe referring to the hero’s life beyond the time when the plot comes about, Tarr must imply it not only through the slow movements of his protagonist in a world that, being unable to offer him any surprise as a new cause of excitement, he is taken for forlorn, but also by combining it with the slow movement of the long-time -as always- shots, into which we watch Maloin walking through his day-to-day life in a way savagely unavailing. This is why he shows to their being recorded the same heaviness as to the record of the criminal actions.
   Maloin’s monotonous daily life is evident from the first pages of the book. Simenon (2013, p.111) writes specifically: ‘He was doing the same things, the same time, at the same place for about twenty years now’. Soon, when Maloin distinguishes the two strangers breaking the law, he writes again: ‘He didn’t think for a moment to accuse the two strangers, of whom the one was still out of sight. It was none of his business’ (p.113). In other words, it is implied in the book not only the repetitiveness in the hero’s everyday life, but his reluctance to escape from the monotony and the repetition. Both figures of Maloin, the cinematic and the literary one, appear reluctant to take action, reduced to stare impassive what they feel does not concern them or is unable to affect them, and in this condition are they encaged, they confine themselves to the observation of life rather than its being lived. They prefer to watch it, from the irreal safeness of their glassy cage. András Bálint Kovácks (2013, p.12) aptly points out thus a recurrent motif in the majority of his late films, the ‘lonely marginalized protagonist who takes on an outsider’s or an observer’s position (Karrer in Damnation, the doctor in Satantango, Valuska in Werckmeister Harmonies, Maloin in the Man from London)’. Simenon’s Maloin, as ‘a man behind the window’ (Rancière 2013, p. 25) is a figure for whom ‘the spectacle entering through the window offers the pure temptation of change’ (p.74) and this ‘exemplary case of temptation’ is what he offers to Bela Tarr (p.73) in order to adopt it as a case of ‘temporarily interrupted repetition and of promises made in the service of deception’ (p.76).
   However, this is not the only preexisting pattern of the book. We could detect as another element for the unfoldment of the plot that the pretense for the breaking -only temporarily- of stillness is not a high aspiration or an ideal, but the temptation of the protagonist to steal something, reflecting the general presence of human action in Tarr’s films as a result of humble motives (Tomaras 2011). It is the humble motives that temporarily set back the prescribed causes of the heroes to the destruction or the tragedy. In our occasion, it is the death of Morrison’s co-operator and their plans’ unsuccess that will cause Maloin’s failure in its turn to try to change the condition[4]. The annihilation in Tarr’s universe is the only certain fate, the extinction of being through the repetition[5]. All his heroes are aware of that cruel probability. It is not by chance, for example, that Simenon puts his Maloin many times to manifest his fear and think somehow to retrieve. For instance, when he finds the suitcase, we read: ‘Gradually his fear turned to panic. He rejected for what he had done. He wondered what would happen if they arrested him and started running with his coat on hand, forgetting his shoes at the dock’ (Simenon 2013, p.20). Contrarily, the cinematic Maloin does never seem to be afraid and thus to get away from the slowness that characterizes his movements. It is of special interest Tarr’s differentiation in the scene when Maloin opens the window of his house and stares at Morrison staring him. While in the book the one is afraid of the other and more particularly Maloin, suspecting that Morrison is lurking under his house, opens awestruck the window wanting and succeeding to startle Morrison, in the film we watch him opening the window slowly and looking right in the eye the man who in his turn has not a better fate from him to face. The cinematic Maloin is apparently not afraid of his fate, since his whole behavior indicates his strong belief that it is already prescribed.

The atrocity of the ineluctable fate
   In general, Tarr’s films can be considered as studies of the unavoidable (Tomaras 2011) and of the ‘inevitable failure’ of the individual will (McKibbin 2011). This dimension is indicated to Tarr from Simenon’s book, an indication that Tarr makes the most of it presenting the main hero, Maloin, as damned to taste not only the failure but to face it. Significantly enough, the opening of the book is the following:
‘The moment exactly that it happens, one thinks that it is a time like any other, but later he realizes that something important has taken place and struggles to collate the goings-on, to reproduce from the beginning until the end the minutes he had lost’ (Simenon 2013, p.7).
What Maloin experiences is fateful and hence ineluctable. It is not his torment that brings him at the knife-edge. That is, at least for Tarr, it is not by accident that a cut -a discontinuity- is caused in the linearity of his fate, but this cut preexists and waits to be figured out by us on the occasion of an inevitable fact. But this will be a discovery not able to surprise, since the suspicion of the impossibility for a change, the suspicion of failure seems immanent in Tarr’s Maloin, as the knowledge of the futility of any effort for amendment. His Maloin will never struggle to find the deeper meaning of what is taking place, he will never attempt to face up to what has been lost (Bori 2008, p.162) as long as he is presented as not having believed that something will be gained. So, his happiness is never seen by him as lost since he did never possess it. Simenon, in opposition with Tarr, makes his hero to hope that he may is able to escape from his fate. Where the cinematic Maloin does not seem to express the least hope and even when he goes with his daughter to buy clothes for her, spending thus his last savings, he does not do it so much because he is sure that he will possess the stolen suitcase without being arrested as from a desperate reaction to the quarrel with his wife, the literary one is left to believe that something can maybe change. Specifically, we read:
‘-What a story… he said smiling, without wanting it’ (Simenon 2013, p.22).
‘Maloin smiled without knowing why’ (p.23).
‘He looked at his cupboard. He looked at the green boat and, at the bank, the man from London who was waiting eagerly. It was impossible for him not to smile. He didn’t do it on purpose’ (p.24).
The day after the suitcase’s theft, that is, without wanting it, Maloin smiles realizing that something now changes for him. This smile, this temporary hope, as its later denial, lacks of cause. Without any farther thinking, he is left to believe in what will soon be unnailed, where the cinematic is respectively already unnailed. On the other hand, the significance of Maloin’s drama is also recognized and illustrated by Simenon. In the last pages of the book we read a determinant excerpt:
‘A tragedy had happened like every day: now a wreck, now a catastrophe, now a murder. Isn’t it the same?
There were two victims, three victims, six victims. Brown was dead. But Maloin could have been in his position with Brown answering to Mrs Maloin!
As about his being unhappy, they were all as well, even Henriette and Ernest who had not yet suspected anything’ (Simenon 2013, p.179).
The woes are inextricable elements of the world. These do happen anyway, it is only the people who are different when they take place. Maloin’s imprisonment and Brown’s murder, in an existentialist aspect, are of the same importance. So, Simenon is too premising a pessimistic point-of-view in the novel’s literary universe. The grief prevails over happiness but only as a fact and not as a meaning. Of course, for the writer, this lack of meaning seems to rest in the factor of chance: ‘It was silly, that is to say! The most embarrassing was that the things could be absolutely different. Everything was a matter of chance’ (Simenon 2013, p.189). For Tarr, the chance rests exclusively in the way by which Maloin -and all the other protagonists as a whole- are lead to their unavoidable ending: he exalts life as a reprieve of death.

The shamefulness of being
   Lastly, I ought to make reference to the existential context (Tsangkari 2002, p.10) that governs all his later work. It could be mentioned that ‘the human condition’ and ‘the reality of our existence’ (Boris 2008, p.161) are dominant themes of his whole filmography. The existential context is sparse in the book when Maloin wonders in pain about his being which he finds to be grievous. Simenon indites one of his thoughts or, rather, needs: ‘He needed his world around him to be depressive’ (Simenon 2013, p.114). Tarr portrays throughout the film his hero’s surroundings as such. In his world everything is almost wasted and time passes slowly without bringing any hope. Both Simenon and Tarr focus on Maloin but they do never have him as a carrier of ideas nor are they interested in describing/depicting his actions but care for him primarily as single being among others with whom he is unable to interrelate and interact. On the extent that the writer succeeds to describe this unfortunate interactions focusing on his solitude as a condition that signalizes a certain failure -or a certain necessity- the director renders it mainly by his aesthetic choices -which anyway label the late work of Tarr- and reduces the action to the minimum, following Maloin to his unimportant -as regards the plot- everyday routine. In this way, he designates the meaning of simple being, the brutality of having to exist in a world that this attempt, an attempt that does not aim at the failure and constitutes an enantiosis to the inclination for annihilation and not just against a world whose being is rejected by him. This rejection cannot but be exalted to the desperate move of disproval of a realization that if you exist, if this is preceded from having substance, its lack would simultaneously be in accordance with the lack of a self that the annihilation induces. This is what scares the cinematic Maloin: not the instant when everything will stop having any meaning, since they have not already for him, but the instant when all his vain efforts in the world -his vain actions by extension- will not be enough to remind him that he still exists. For this reason one of the most vividly dramatized scene in the film -absolutely absent in the novel- is when Maloin realizes that everything will return where it initially was and moves back and forth the levers making simply noise since the railroads have not use anymore and thus this action is absurd. So, his frustration and desperation are rendered with the causation of a vain movement, as vain is proved day after day and theirs in the world. The cinematic Maloin is aware from the beginning until the end of what the literary one realizes a little time before Brown’s death. Simenon (2013, p.148) writes: ‘He could not see any more clearly neither the importance nor the necessity of all the things he wanted to do’. In both the book and the film, his submitting to a humble motive, the shame that he feels at last about that, is connected and identified with his shame to exist. Besides, describing Brown’s woman, Simenon (2013, p.132) writes: ‘[…] but she was unconsiderable and humble as now, with the same smile that declares an apology for its being’ (p.132). Just like her, Maloin -in both the novel and the film- apprehends his existence as a dissonance -similar to the sound of the levers into the silent night- and hence, being not proud of his existence, cannot but feel ashamed about it. With Tarr’s choice to let Maloin not to be arrested at last, not to feel ashamed before the other citizens, he designates him as being that will slowly be deteriorated by the repetition.

The immanent outline or Conclusions
   As it was emerged by this contradistinction in reference with the more important and recurrent features that govern Tarr’s late work, he, by detecting all the elements that he was interested in, chose, without disforming its plot or its spirit, to rise into prominence its immanent elements to his own universe. At the points where he was differentiated, he did it exactly so the appropriation of the book would not be divergent from his philosophy. What pointed to the final result is that the book was reflecting the universe of Tarr as reading in a degree that his cinematic adaptation reflects the former work of the director by broadening it without in parallel to diverge from it. Simenon’s book, as story, standed for Tarr as a pretense in order to reconstruct upon it his until then constantly developing cinematic universe. In a way, Simenon’s book was, in the one or the other way, familiar to Tarr’s thematic and aesthetic quests so it’s appropriation would be a perforce rendering of its essence. The creativity of his project, thus, lies not only to the success of its idiosyncratic rendering but also to the meditative function of it in his own filmography.

[1] Many film scholars have divided his filmography into three periods. As about his feature films, the first period includes his early works Family Nest (1979), The Outsider (1981) and The Prefab People (1982), the second includes the film Almanac of Fall (1984) and the third period gathers his later and well-known work, namely the films Damnation (1988), Satantango (1994), Werkmeister Harmonies (2000), The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). From now on, in my essay, I will make references only to the third period as more illustrative of Tarr’s ideas, philosophy and aesthetics.
[2] Tarr avers that ‘he is always directing the same film, just doing a slightly better job of it every time’ (Bori 2008, p.162).
[3] ‘Maloin began once again turning around in his cage staring outside’ (Simenon 2013, p.21). All the excerpts from Georges Simenon’s book L'Homme de Londres have been translated, from French to English, by me.
[4] As it is more explicitly presented in his last film.
[5] We should call to mind here-regarding the motif of an earlier disaster to the causation of a next- that it is the sepsis and not just the presence of the whale in the village that embarrasses the poor peasants in Werckmeister Harmonies (Asensio 2011) where once again the faith to an upcoming good is by no means redeemed (Orr 2001, p.27).

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  • Venuti, Lawrence (2012) ‘Adaptation, Translation, Critique’, in Timothy Corrigan (ed.) Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader. 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 89-103.

   Ι would like to express my sincere thanks to Christos Aggelakopoulos for his diligent philological support.

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