Hungary, 1974, colour, 71 mins
- Director: Miklós Jancsó
- Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, based on the play by László Gyurkó
- Photography: János Kende
- Production Design: Tamás Banovich
- Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
- Editor: Zoltán Farkas
- Sound: György Pintér
- Music: Tamás Cseh
- Cast: Mari Törőcsik (Elektra); György Cserhalmi (Oresztész); József Madaras (Aegisztosz); Mária Bajcsay (Kikiáltó); Lajos Balázsovits (Vezér); Gabi Jobba (Krisotemis); József Bige; Tamás Cseh; György Delianisz; Balázs Galkó; Tamás Jordán; Zsolt Körtvélyessy; János Lovas; Sándor Lovas; Csaba Oszkay; László Pelsöczy; János Raimann; Iván Szendrő; Tamás Szentjóby; Tomasz Takisz; Balázs Tardy; Frantisek Velecký; Gyöngyvér Vigh
There was always something inevitable about Miklós Jancsó’s Electra My Love (a literal translation of the Hungarian Szerelmem, Elektra, though it’s also known as Elektreia). In the films from The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) to Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971), he had been refining an approach to film that could best be described as ritualised, his characters more akin to mythological archetypes than flesh-and-blood humans. And since Jancsó’s earlier work had more than their fair share of moments resembling Greek tragedy, what could be more natural than adapting an ancient Greek source?
In fact, Jancsó’s film was derived from László Gyurkó’s stage play, which offered a radical re-reading of the ancient Elektra myth. Jancsó in turn transports it to his beloved puszta, and while the film initially seems to be set in a timeless never-never land, by the end the costumes and music are recognisably Hungarian. It marks the most extreme refinement of his post-Confrontation style: there are just eight principal shots, each lasting an entire reel of film, with four additional fill-in shots making up a total only just scraping double figures.
As with Red Psalm, the narrative plays second fiddle to everything else, so it’s worth outlining in full - this is not the kind of film where spoilers matter. At a fifteenth-anniversary commemoration of her father Agamemnon’s death, Electra (Mari Törőcsik) is told by her younger sister Chrisothemis (Gabi Jobba) to put it behind her and move on. Electra indignantly replies that she must never forget the primary reason for her opposition to the tyrant Aegisthus (József Madaras). A mere woman, she cannot raise a hand against him herself, but she lives in hope that her exiled brother Orestes will return. Aegisthus plays various psychological games with her, in an attempt to convince her that Orestes is dead, but when he turns out to be alive, his appearance inspires the people to overthrow Aegisthus. After killing Aegisthus and his supporters, Orestes and Electra die and are resurrected, free to foment revolution elsewhere.
Jancsó’s hyperstylised approach sets the protagonists against a backdrop of not only the puszta but some five hundred extras. Their intricately plotted movements run through every scene, and the big set-pieces are closer to ritual theatre than cinema. Though there’s nothing quite as formally astonishing as the massacre towards the end of Red Psalm, the film is bursting with memorable images: the line of women wending their way round a spiral path around a mount studded with candles, Orestes running through a sea of prone bodies, the usurped Aegisthus treated as a plaything by being forced to balance on a large ball (which in turn encapsulates his own shaky hold on both power and, ultimately, life), the deliberately anachronistic (and clearly symbolic) red helicopter that descends like a firebird at the end to carry Electra and Orestes off, and seemingly endless lines of horses galloping across the screen from the opening to the closing seconds.
There are plenty of contemporary political allegories to be drawn. The frequent use of Hungarian folksong (performed onscreen) invites us to read the film as a portrait of Hungary under rulers as ruthless yet insecure as Aegisthus (apparently Gyurkó’s play was explicitly inspired by the Stalinist era. When Aegisthus proclaims a Feast of Truth, encouraging his subjects to offer direct criticism without fear of reprisal, they choose unstinting sycophancy - possibly aware that when Mao tried a similar tactic in the late 1950s, his assurances proved worthless. Aegisthus relies both on terror (his people are constantly surrounded by horsemen and whip-wielding thugs) and his subjects’ reluctance to take decisive action. However, he in turn feels powerless to discipline Electra, unless given a good excuse. When he is provided with one, such as her murder of the messenger bearing news of Orestes’ death, he takes the politically canny step of proclaiming that everyone is equal under the law, thus neatly hoisting Electra (who opens the film with a lament that without consistently-applied law, civilisation is impossible) with her own petard.
As in Red Psalm, János Kende’s camera is constantly zooming from long shot to close-up, though the overall pace is statelier, the compositions more measured, the complex blocking more precise, the movements more intricately choreographed. Dance is even more central to the film’s mode of expression than was the case earlier, and is often the primary means through which Electra communicates with her followers: the dialogue is not so much spoken as declaimed in a manner not unlike authentic Greek theatre. When Aegisthus is finally killed by Orestes, Béla Bartók’s pounding piano piece Allegro barbaro (the title of which Jancsó would later adopt for a 1978 film) implicitly proclaims the triumph of the people over the oppressor via its folksong roots.
In Red Psalm, revolution is seen as a sadly necessary corrective to centuries of exploitation by the ruling classes, with any violence to be deeply regretted. By contrast, Electra herself ends up a militant revolutionary, advocating bloody revenge as a legitimate end in itself, the people justified in expressing their hatred as hatred, if their ultimate aims are the creation of a wholly equal society. It’s an uncompromisingly absolutist vision that was hard to sustain even in 1974, and subsequent events (the journey from idealism to terrorism taken by the Red Brigades in Jancsó’s adopted Italy, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq) have shown that it’s almost invariably unsustainable when applied in practice. Which may well be why Jancsó resorted to increasingly stylised treatments in the first place: practice was already sharply deviating from theory.
DVD Distribution: Facets (US), NTSC, no region code
Picture: Sadly typical for this label, this transfer clearly came from an analogue tape source (there’s at least one tell-tale drop-out, and it hasn’t been especially well tracked either), presumably originally created for a VHS release. Marked texturing to the image creates pronounced moiré effects in an extreme close-up of a woman’s white veil, and the lighting has been flattened to the point where the whole thing looks as though it was shot indoors, which was categorically not the case. Jancsó’s frequent recourse to smoke and fog also plays havoc with the encoding. However, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio does appear to be correct.
Sound: By contrast, the sound is fine, and almost certainly reflects the original mono track.
Subtitles: To start on a positive note, they’re idiomatic, typo-free, properly synchronised (by no means a given with this label), white, and appear to offer a full translation. On the other hand, they’re also permanently burned into the image - and, worse, they’re set against a translucent black background, presumably to ensure that they were clearly readable even in the VHS version.
Extras: A small stills gallery.
- Filmtörténet (in Hungarian, but with video clips)
- Internet Movie Database
- Electra My Love is one of three films analysed by Peter Hames in this Kinoeye piece
- Light Sleeper reproduces a 1974 on-set report by Gideon Bachmann, originally published in Sight & Sound
- Reviews: Cinepassion (Fernando F. Croce); New York Times (Richard Eder); Ozus’ World (Dennis Schwartz); PopMatters (Chris Elliot); Village Voice (Michael Atkinson)
- DVD available from: Amazon.com; DVD Empire