Among the grotesque images paraded through Gyorgy Palfi’s film Taxidermia, the most indelible are neither the graphic depiction of an obsessive voyeur masturbating with fire nor the shearing of a pig’s tail attached to a newborn baby. They are found in its extended scenes of sport-eating competitions by a Hungarian team of gourmands during the Communist era.
Seated in a row of troughs, the contestants, who have the pillowy bodies of sumo wrestlers, shovel slop down their throats as fast as they can swallow it in a race against the clock. During the breaks between rounds they regurgitate torrents of vomit, while comparing techniques of “cross-swallowing.” If Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia is an irresistible invitation to dine, Taxidermia is an equally compelling one to fast.
A meditation on the bestial appetites of humanity by the Hungarian director who made his 2002 debut with the much-admired, nearly silent Hukkle, Taxidermia relentlessly focuses on sex, food and innards. It might also be an allegory about repression and Hungarian national identity over the last 70 years. Beautifully lighted, with elegant, fluid cinematography, it includes some stunning, magic-realist flourishes.
The revolving image of a wooden bathtub finds its function changing with each revolution. A stuffed human body with the head removed and a stitched torso, exhibited in a museum, suggests a Dadaist parody of Michelangelo’s David.
Taxidermia belongs to a school of Central European surrealism that marries nightmarish horror with formal beauty. Two masters of a style that is visually spellbinding but that can be physically nauseating to behold are the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.
Directors who borrow from the aesthetic include David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam, and, in its cruder expressions, the practitioners of torture porn. But Palfi’s film aspires to high art. In his director’s note he states, “My aim was to create not just an auteur film but an enduring, personal auteur film.” He might have added “in the European tradition.” The message is a brutal reminder that beneath a thin veneer of civilization we are animals who kill and torture one another and who devour other animals.
Taxidermia is a generational triptych that begins during World War II and ends in the present and whose parts dissolve into one another. The first two are adapted from stories by the Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy; Palfi contributed the final segment.
In Part 1 Vendel Morosgovanyi (Csaba Czene), a servile military orderly and peeping Tom in a remote wintry outpost, obsessively spies on the wife and daughters of his sadistic commanding officer, who treats him like a slave. Vendel finds comfort in secret lust. He tortures himself with a candle flame, drinks fire and in a spectacular special effect turns his erect penis into a flaming rocket.
After he copulates with the lieutenant’s slovenly wife in a scene in which squeals and grunts are accompanied by his fantasies of her daughters and a slaughtered pig, she becomes pregnant.
The cuckolded commander shoots Vendel in the head but brings up his child, Kalman Balatony (Gergo Trocsanyi). Born with a pig’s tail that is severed at birth, Kalman grows up to be a speed eater for a team seeking recognition by the International Olympic Committee. The eating marathons and accompanying military pageantry mercilessly satirize the empty pomp of Communist rallies. Kalman marries Gizi (Adel Stanczel), a fellow speed eater. After their honeymoon, while she is pregnant, the couple put on an eating exhibition in which they consume much of a vat of red caviar.
The story jumps to the present. Gizi has left Kalman (now played by Gabor Mate in a fat suit), who subsists on a diet of unwrapped candy bars that he swallows whole; he has grown so enormous he is unable to move. Kalman, who lives alone with three glowering cats that he is fattening by feeding them lumps of lard, is regularly visited by his resentful son, Lajos (Marc Bischoff), a sallow, cadaverous taxidermist.
Discovering his father dead one day, Lajos proceeds to stuff him. Then he locks himself into a Rube Goldberg-worthy contraption and begins stuffing himself; father and son end up as works of art displayed in a museum.
Treatises could be written on the relation between life and art, the bestial and spiritual, in Taxidermia. A central ingredient that runs through the movie is a current of humor. “Just as the body is overcome by desire, so naturalism is overcome by surrealism,” Palfi declares. Barely able to contain a smirk, Taxidermia makes it grimly funny.