“Old age is hard to bear, especially when it masquerades as youth.”
“Bits of film create a haunting mosaic of existence”: I wrote this about Károly Makk’s great Love (Szerelem, 1971), and the description also applies to his Macskajáték. Both solemn and lightly satirical, this fine, sly Hungarian film—in distracting color that’s no match for Love’s beauteous black and white—is, according to different sources, based on István Örkény’s novella or play. (Of course, both may be correct; think John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.) There is restless humor in its epistolary course: after we see Erzsi, the protagonist, a retired schoolteacher and widow, read a letter from an old acquaintance, Paula, we hear as voiceover the letter that Erzsi writes to sister Giza about Paula and Paula’s letter, and then we see and hear both sides of a telephone conversation between the sisters about Paula and Paula’s letter and Erzsi’s letter, after which Erzsi writes another letter to Giza, this time in response to the phone conversation! It is a way of filling time, filling space (blank sheets of paper) and keeping a toehold in the present, although the past dominates as a subject or direction.
Indeed, the film opens, pre-credits, with old sepia photographs of the two sisters—an indication of Erzsi’s backward look, which her ringing doorbell interrupts, announcing the arrival of Paula’s letter. Much of what we see in this film is a bit or shard of memory or something that is done to encourage memory’s appearance: Erzsi’s turning off a light; her lying down and closing her eyes. Moreover, the present is inextricable from the past: Erzsi’s jealousy will flare up when visitor Paula takes up with Viktor, a former opera singer with whom she has maintained a platonic relationship masking, apparently, livelier feelings.
Erzsi has tried hard to maintain the illusion of a settled life, an image that society confers on the no-longer-young. Her life, though, is sensitive, volatile and at times chaotic. The Resnaisian mosaic of pieces of time, the fragmentation of the present into flashes of memory: it is an effort to keep all that is crumbling in some sort of place.
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