The problems of ageing and becoming an adult, wishing to live somewhere else and staying at the same place are all tackled through the relationship of mother and daughter in Ágnes Kocsis’s first feature film, Friss levegő that can already be seen in Hungarian movie theatres after a successful festival tour.
With her first feature film – which was originally planned to be a short film, but was later transformed into a whole evening product – the director followed the trail begun by her shorts. After Szortírozott levelek, 18 kép egy konzervgyári lány életéből and A vírus, Friss levegő is the story of lonely and isolated people unable to communicate. Viola, the mother works in the public lavatory of a subway, and what she desires most is a real companion. She tries to enliven her dull and airless weekdays by air-fresheners and browsing through personal ads. Her daughter, Angéla is still a secondary school student, she studies fashion design and sewing, and dreams of a different life, a career abroad. She is only learning about the idea of dating. Their relationship and communication, just as their repetitive and monotonous days are airless. They live together, but rather just in the same flat. As Viola gets home from work, her daughter opens wide all the windows to let fresh air in. Angéla closes her mother out of her own room. This is her well-defined territory with green dress designs on the wall, just like the public toilet for her mother with its red fake flowers and the lavatory room lined with wine red silk. Their communication is restricted to notices left on clean clothes and the cold scrambled eggs on the cooker. Apart from the blood relation, the only common point in their life is La Piovra. They always watch the current episode of the Italian mafia series sitting next to each other on the sofa. The picture of detective Corrado Cattani (Michele Placido) can be found above Angéla’s table, as well as at Viola’s workplace on the wall. He perhaps represents the ideal father figure for the girl, and the ideal man for the mother.
Even the job of the figures on the periphery of life in Szortírozott levelek and 18 kép was boring and monotonous, but by the fact that the director has chosen a public lavatory lady from the bottom of the employment pyramid to be the leading character of her latest film, Kocsis clearly sets the basic situation. Similarly to the mentioned short films, the characters are also helped to survive the dull labor by a special passion. The sorter tries to replace her (missing) human relationships by opening other people’s letters; the tinned food factory girl gambles in the hope of a better life, while Viola uses different air-fresheners to suppress all the smell and the privation of the public toilet. Despite all these, as a contrast, Viola is still beautiful and desirable, her femininity and dignity shine through the screen. In the club of Found Hearts – where only lonely hearts can actually be found – and through personal ads she could easily find her partner, if she did not know for sure that nobody would be suitable for her. Yet, the single mother who lives day after day could preserve her dignity and grace in spite of her daughter – and the low income. The fact that she strives to make her job bearable (and by the end of the film it turns out that she manages to keep it) symbolizes the acceptance of the situation by her generation. This is what you have, this is how you have to live. Not everybody could fulfill themselves and realize their dreams after the political changes. A single-parent family’s flat in a block house on the outskirts of town reflects a paralytic state. The small flat that was considered to be furnished in a modern and comfortable way 20 years ago, today definitely suggests a stuffy vintage feeling. The old-fashioned Videoton television set, the ancient furniture and the ridiculous accessories all recall the good old days. Despite the red color surrounding Viola and symbolizing passion, the woman seems to have accepted the situation, and that she is unable to change it, so she tries to do her job the best way, and is actually happy to have one. However, Angéla is young and immature. She is surrounded by different shades of green, which is not by accident. She still believes in the possibility of breaking out, she cannot accept the current situation. She is rebelling against the present, she would love to change it, but she does not know how. She despises her mother and everything she represents so much, that she cannot even speak about it. So she does not share her plans and dreams with her (although she could probably find support with her), nor with the nice and slightly shy boy she occasionally sees, because no matter how she combs his hair, she would never be the big one. She sets off to test her luck, but unintentionally and as if it was her fate, she returns to the place where she started.
Ágnes Kocsis prefers choosing new faces for her roles from the alternative theatre scene, and this concept has become the foundation stone of the strange intimacy of her latest film as well. The two female characters are Júlia Nyakó as the mother (she started her career at 16, as a child actor, and she is currently member of the alternative Studio K theatre company), while her daughter in the film is played by the absolute beginner Izabella Hegyi (a student who the director found when visiting a sewing school) and they perfectly complement each other. It is not so much their acting, but their natural, low key and subdued, yet dramatic presence which makes this rather stylized film so human. Acceptance and the wish to live in a different way finely reflect the generation gap between mother and daughter, while the two different, yet complementary colors, red and green, symbolize their yearning of completely opposite directions and their differences in character. Angéla can usually be seen on tall, high rise buildings and locations, such as the recurring vaulty concrete bridge, the lookout tower or the glassed flyover, from where she can have a great panorama. Viola, however, spends most of her time under the ground, in the public toilet, from where there is no way further down. The images of Ádám Fillenz, photographer - whose shots with little camera movement and frame size changes - largely contribute to the unique technique that mixes emotional involvement and alienation, showing the figures longing for warmth in the harsh and bleak environment. His static, painstakingly organized shots and his compositions that are the results of the overemphasized use of colors take on a basically dramaturgical role when introducing the life of the characters. Although the images are not accompanied with a lot of dialogues, we get to know the figures quickly, due to the actions shown from several aspects. The lack of accompanying music also serves emotional involvement and identification, that is often replaced by long silence or the natural noises of the given environment (such as the recurring humming lamp and the quiet roars of the underground train passing by), while all the songs in the film are part of the plot. Songs of composer Bálint Kovács, as well as the old Animals hit Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood - representing Angéla’s loneliness and her not being understood – that Angéla listens to several times, both fit well into the dim and sometimes ironic atmosphere of the film.
The strange and bleak melodrama that recalls the world of Käurismaki can be created through the low key, but internally glowing emotions, as well as the resulting subdued acting and by completely omitting close-ups, yet the whole of the film is characterized by consistent minimalism. The unity of consistent dramaturgy cannot be broken by two unexpected events at the end of the film either – that are completely without precedent -, since the scriptwriters (Ágnes Kocsis and co-director Andrea Roberti) manage to precisely blend them with the slow flow of the story. Their dialogues are witty and telling, moreover, in the film – to counterpoint its intended monotony – refined humor and irony also have their place. The director in her first feature film consequently leads the viewer through the plot in an easy-going way – with the relationship between the described environment and the leading characters immediately becoming clear – and due to the clear stresses, the story is easily comprehensible and can be experienced all the time. Kocsis takes her viewers seriously, there is no over-explanation, since she lets them get to know the characters from visual references. In the beginning, the film follows Viola’s fate, and the director only lets her go after the first third to introduce Angéla and what is going on in her, and in a subtle way mingles the stories of the two women only at the end.
The spectacularly over-planned retro atmosphere is sometimes a bit disturbing; in some of the longer shots we can feel that the creators wanted to play safe when depicting misery, which is unnecessary since the described social atmosphere is obvious for everybody from the start due to smaller hints. As a result, early in the film it is impossible to decide whether Friss levegő is set in contemporary Hungary or perhaps 15-20 years ago. In the story that is set on an undeterminable, barren and bleak suburban location, the only crutches are the appearance of mobile phones and the topics on the evening news on television. Yet, despite this disturbing unnaturalness, the message comes through, from the cluster of multiple meanings. We get an exact description of a social group that is absolutely closed from the opportunities of mobility and is in a hopeless situation in today’s Hungary, but apart from raising social questions, the film leaves enough space for personal history as well. With this, the film manages to avoid sticking into the introduction of reality, and focuses on the generation gap between mother and daughter with subtle, yet bitter irony and follows Angéla along the cragged path of becoming an adult, from defiant resistance to the complete acceptance of reality. This road is perhaps longer than it should be, because the reduction of the somewhat shorter film time, less silence and the longer sidetrack could make the story bleak, but all in all these do not hinder the authenticity and the special atmosphere of the film. And finally, as the green pattern of a dress is placed upon the wine red velvet wall, and Angéla puts on the red gown, colors and fates can finally complement each other.
translated by Andrea Danyi