After Confidence (Bizalom, 1980), perhaps the best István Szabó film I have seen is Édes Emma, drága Böbe—vázlatok, aktok, a heartrending study of the chaos into which freedom following the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Hungarians. The film, written by Szabó and Andrea Vészits, centers on two schoolteachers, who have moved themselves from the country to Budapest, and who switch the subject they teach from Russian to that “damn English,” which they themselves struggle to learn. Emma (Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, raw, powerful—and dubbed by Ildikó Bánsági) and Böbe share a bedroom in the “teachers’ hotel” near the airport, where the disturbing sound of airplane engines tauntingly reminds both women of the freedom that at least some others seem privy to. Emma is having a nowhere-destined affair with their married headmaster, while Böbe gets sacked once she is arrested for prostituting herself with a long string of foreign men.
Emma and Böbe do not feel free despite evaporated Soviet bossiness and influence. Early on, by ambiguously overlapping one’s invisibly uttered romantic words to a man with an image of both roommates, Szabó makes us feel for a heartbeat that the two women are lovers and, when we discover this is not the case, that perhaps they ought to be, or want to be, or do not consciously know they want to be. Whatever the political change of guard, freedom has limits. Ultimately, one woman ends up in a pool of blood while the other caresses her cheek.
Throughout the film, Lajos Koltai’s rich, underlit color photography deepens the intimacy between the two while ironically dimming into uncertainty the prospects of countless Hungarians. There are two things to do: persevere; give up. Emma does one; Böbe, the other.
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